For the seventh year in a row, Alaska has the highest rate of women killed by men of any U.S. state. It’s a statistic most Alaskans are familiar with, and though policy makers, law enforcement officers and justice system officials profess outrage at the state’s continued worst-in-the-nation status, efforts to reverse the trend have so far borne little fruit — in fact, since 2020, the state has seen a steady, though not continuous, trend toward worse and worse rates of women killed by men compared to a relatively stable national average. In 2020, the most recent year for which data has been released, Alaska’s rate of women killed by men, 3.43 per 100,000 women, was more than two and a half times as high as the U.S. rate, 1.34 per 100,000 women.
Put simply, we’re not getting it done when it comes to keeping women in Alaska safe, and that’s on all of us. And there’s more that all of us can do.
An interconnected web of violence
In studying violence against women, the World Health Organization has identified a complex web of overlapping factors that contribute to the problem, from the individual and concrete to the society-wide and general.
At an individual level, some factors that influence domestic violence are difficult to influence directly, such as the fact that children that witness violence in their household early in life are significantly more likely to commit acts of violence themselves as adults. The same is true of other patterns that contribute to violence against women — alcohol and drug abuse, familial history of mental illness or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done: Although those factors are difficult to influence on a direct, immediate level, they can be influenced over time through education, treatment and targeted programs to help break the generational cycle of destructive behavior. And we shouldn’t discount the impact we can have on an interpersonal level — if someone you know is struggling with habits that are putting themself or others around them at risk, getting a reality check from a trusted friend or family member can be difficult, but it can also be the catalyst that makes a person realize they can’t solve all their problems by reverting to their old bad habits.
A difficult truth about domestic violence in Alaska is that too many of us know both perpetrators and victims of violence against women and do far too little to stop it. It is, admittedly, not an easy thing to do, particularly when it happens within our family, circle of friends or close community. In many of Alaska’s far-flung communities, there is little to no law enforcement presence and confronting an abuser — or doing anything to intervene — can be a dangerous prospect. But there are also too many cases where we tell ourselves it’s not our business, things aren’t as bad as we fear they might be, or that a friend or family member is just having a bad day.
We need to stop turning a blind eye simply because we’re averse to conflict. We need to send the message to abusers and perpetrators of violence that their actions are unacceptable, and we need to let victims know that we support them and do what we can to get them — and, often, their children — away from potential harm.
One reason Alaska’s rate of women killed by men remains stubbornly high and often trending in the wrong direction is the host of signals that we’re not taking the problem as seriously as we claim. Too many crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault go unreported for fear that pursuing a legal case will be fruitless — a fear that’s backed up by data showing the single-digit percentage of cases that result in convictions and jail time.
And the problems of accountability go all the way to the top: Since 2020, two Alaska attorneys general have resigned in disgrace — this week, one was finally charged — for scandals of sexual harassment and assault, sending an awful message that Alaska’s women aren’t even guaranteed respect by the state’s top official in the Department of Law.
Meanwhile, elected officials are thumping their chests over the $3,284 checks Alaskans received this past week as evidence that things are heading in the right direction for our state. But although many Alaskans can and will use that money for important needs, can we honestly say that inflating the annual dividend is a more responsible decision than, say, doing more to provide for domestic violence shelters that face funding shortfalls and greater pressures due to the pandemic?
Those inclined to minimize Alaska’s problem with violence against women tend to point to the modest sample size or Alaska’s relatively small population, which amplifies a single death’s impact on the overall rate. But what that argument neglects to address, in addition to its callousness, is that each death is the endpoint of what has often been a years-long, or even generations-long, chain of failures in our duty to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.
If we want Alaska to be a state we can be proud of — a state where women feel safe instead of devalued and unsupported — we’ve all got work to do.