Marriage is no safe haven from abuse

I work at W.O.M.A.N. Inc., an anti-domestic violence agency in San Francisco. The other week, a woman in an abusive marriage emailed me for help, the same week Washington Post's PostEverything article came out suggesting marriage protects women from abuse. After working at W.O.M.A.N. Inc., whose staff has a cumulative experience of more than 70 years in the domestic violence field, I confidently state this is not true.

We are taught from childhood that our ultimate happiness occurs with a loving relationship and a stable family. Yet, the United Nations Development Fund for Women estimates that one in every three women globally will be beaten, raped or otherwise abused during her lifetime. In most cases, the abuser is a family member. Last year alone, more than 24,000 calls were made to San Francisco domestic violence crisis lines like mine and approximately 8,000 domestic violence calls were made to 911.

Furthermore, domestic violence often begins or escalates in severity during pregnancy. Post columnist W. Bradford Wilcox's claim ignores that married or unmarried, one in six pregnant women report abuse by partners. On our crisis line, one recently pregnant woman mentioned she was hospitalized after her partner attacked her and she miscarried.

Wilcox's claim that males “calm down” after having a family suggests he knows nothing about the prevalence of family violence. His reasoning that married fathers naturally watch out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters ignores that domestic violence is a learned behavior: Sons who witness violence are more likely to engage in domestic violence and daughters are more likely to become victims themselves as adults.

UC San Francisco found that domestic violence is more common than any other single health problem among women during pregnancy with serious implications for their infants. These children are 30 percent more likely to require intensive care upon birth. Homicide, the second-leading cause of traumatic death for pregnant women, accounts for 31 percent of maternal injury deaths in the United States.

These unfortunate realities have mobilized the Women's Policy Institute and a group of dedicated nonprofits including the California Catholic Conference and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, two unlikely allies, to support AB 1579, the Healthy Babies Act of 2014. This legislation would allow countless women to obtain CalWORKs benefits, the state welfare program for needy families, at the second trimester of their first pregnancy.

In California, a high number of CalWORKS recipients have been abused at some point. Financial dependence contributes to them staying in abusive relationships including marriages. In Kern County, 78 percent reported abuse and 18 percent reported using CalWORKS to escape abuse. The Healthy Babies Act would lessen undue stress on newly expectant mothers by ensuring earlier access to basic needs grants that can mitigate financial burden, eliminate dependence on abusive partners and ensure better health outcomes for themselves and their babies. In other words, public assistance becomes a lifeline to safety.

It is irresponsible for Wilcox to say marriage and babies are the cure-all for domestic violence. His solution implies women must marry a man for protection. This framework disempowers women and supports the notion that men have control. It perpetuates the misconception that domestic violence is the survivor's fault — for not being a good woman and settling down. Instead of focusing on whom to blame for the violence, we need to look at ways to prevent domestic violence.

The Healthy Babies Act is a step in this direction and is set to be heard before the Appropriations Committee of the California Senate. You can be part of this movement by contacting your representative and stating that Assembly Bill 1579 is critical to the welfare of women and their children, the future generations of Californians.

Mariya Taher is the community liaison manager at W.O.M.A.N. Inc., a San Francisco-based anti-domestic violence agency. She is also a 2013-14 Women's Policy Institute Fellow through the Women's Foundation of California.

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