The statistics are sickening. One in every four women in Alaska will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. The Alaska rape rate is 2-1/2 times the national average, and the child sexual assault rate in Alaska is close to six times the national average. For the Native Alaska population, the numbers are even rougher. One out of every three American Indian and Alaska Native women will be raped during her life, and three out of every four American Indian and Alaska Native women will be physically assaulted.
Three out of four.
That's a lot of numbers, but look at it this way. The next time you are in the post office, the grocery store, or a coffee shop, look around you. One out of every four women you pass has been or will be the victim of domestic violence. If you are in rural Alaska, that number is likely much higher.
But here's the statistic that really stood out to me — boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults.
So here we have a large population of the state being abused, and with every incident, the likelihood that the problem will continue to get worse, generation after generation, increases.
So what do you do? What does Alaska need to do to stop this crazy, destructive trend that is undermining the fabric of our communities and the integrity of many proud families?
During a recent Choose Respect rally in Anchorage, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell told the crowd to speak up, get involved, that the way forward is through individual responsibility and community involvement.
But one member of the crowd was not persuaded, calling the politician out for what she deemed a lacking effort on the part of the state to fund programs that provide help for the abused and the abusers.
"Another Native woman is dead," shouted Desa Jacobsson, a Green Party candidate for governor in 1998, referring to the late Pauline Mann, a Hooper Bay woman whose boyfriend allegedly beat her to death last week.
Treadwell pointed to efforts by the state to fund shelters, services and law enforcement efforts in Alaska. But all those services are not only historically scantily funded, they are all serving efforts after the abuse has already taken place. Sure, some well-intended prevention and awareness efforts occur, but the bulk of the effort is put toward dealing with the extreme fallout each one of these incidents creates.
Here's the thing — this violence continues because we as a society allow it to continue. Call it a hangover from the days when wives were property and children had no rights. Or you can attribute it to people too worried about imposing or butting in, especially in small towns where gossip is deadly.
But the simple fact is that if we as a society collectively decided this was no longer acceptable on any level, it would stop.
There is also an amazing discrepancy between the way such cases are dealt with by the criminal system and the way nonviolent crimes, such as theft or drug offenses are handled.
Nationally, statistics say that many reported rapes, abuse and incest incidents do not result in an arrest. And of those arrested, only a portion will face prosecution and only a few will do time behind bars.
Every time an abuser walks away, unpunished, people notice. People talk. And another victim decides not to stand up for themselves, because they feel the judicial system isn't behind them.
Here's another thought: Some research says that the place that the solution must start from is a renewed call for equality between women and men. Domestic violence and rape are rooted in this belief that women are not equal to men. If you think that's outdated, that men and women are pretty much equal in Alaska, think again. In 2011, men earned $12,000 more a year on average for full-time, year round work in this state — $52,379 to $40,550 for women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That translates into women earning 75 cents for every dollar a man earns, and the figures get much worse if you look at sub-sections, such as minority groups. Women with a bachelor's degree still aren't paid as much as the typical Alaska man who has some college or an associate's degree.
Now, money isn't everything, but if you consider that it's against the law to discriminate against women, and yet, it occurs, subtly, with every paycheck, then you can assume that it is the cultural norm to devalue women in other ways, too.
And certainly, part of the solution lies with every parent raising a child. If it's true that the chances of your child becoming an abuser doubles when you allow yourself to be abused, that might just be enough motivation to get out of situations that are unhealthy to your family.
Perhaps imagining your child being victimized or striking his or her partner — imagining them behind bars, or marked for life as an abuser — will help you stop the cycle, or motivate you to step in, speak up and offer to help if you know someone in that situation. If you think it's not your problem, think again. It's all around us, impacting all of us. And it will only stop when we decide it's not okay and demand changes — from our state, our communities and in our own families.
Carey Restino is the editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. Used with permission.
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