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Shedding Light on Intimate Partner Violence

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“One of the saddest things was just how many of these survivors did not believe their own experience was domestic violence.”
— Dr. Chandra Ford

RECENT DATA ON INTIMATE PARTNER VIOLENCE in the United States indicates that the risk is declining for women, who make up the majority of victims. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the rate of intimate partner violence dropped by more than two-thirds between 1994 and 2012.

But might some women be less inclined to report intimate partner violence than others? That’s what two FSPH faculty members are investigating. Specifically, they’re uncovering how intimate partner violence affects two groups of women: Asian immigrants and women of all ethnicities who identify as lesbian or bisexual.

Previous research has shown that Asian immigrant women in the U.S. are less likely to report physical or sexual assault by their partners than are other racial and ethnic groups. Dr. Paula Tavrow, associate adjunct professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences and director of the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health, recently led a study to learn how Asian immigrant women would respond after watching a three-minute video in which a woman from the same ethnic group talked about disclosing abuse to a health provider and getting help.

“The idea was that these videos would be equivalent to hearing from a trusted friend,” Tavrow says.

Participants were 60 married women who lived in California and immigrated to the U.S. as adults from four countries: mainland China, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam. Fielding School doctoral and MPH students who spoke the languages fluently collected the data, which entailed meeting one on one with the women, showing them the videos and interviewing them in their native tongues. During the interviews, some of the women revealed that they had previously or were currently experiencing domestic violence, and the team made sure that they knew what services were available to assist them.

Some of the Vietnamese women indicated they would be reluctant to report domestic violence because they felt extremely dependent on their husbands; a few felt reliant on them for their immigration status. Others said they feared that friends and relatives would blame them if they revealed abuse. Some of the Korean women also reported stigma, but more often expressed concern with how reporting the abuse would affect their children. Several women, for example, said they would be reluctant to report abuse because they wouldn’t want their children to experience the shame of divorce, or of having a father who was labeled a criminal.

Most of the participants said the videos could be useful in encouraging women to divulge abuse. They also shared tips on how the videos could be improved, such as by including specifics on what would happen to a woman or her family if she reported her situation to a health care provider. “Some of the women said unless they knew exactly what would happen next they wouldn’t reveal anything,” Tavrow says.

Dr. Chandra Ford, associate professor in the Fielding School’s Department of Community Health Sciences and founding director of FSPH’s Center for the Study of Racism, Social Justice & Health, focuses much of her work on investigating health disparities, specifically how certain populations experience health issues differently from the general population.

In 2009, Ford began working with a Los Angeles City Council committee that had been tasked with looking into intimate partner violence that occurs among members of the LGBT community — who experience similar or higher rates of intimate partner violence than heterosexual women, previous research has shown. She learned that police officers, frontline responders and health care providers want to support LGBT victims of domestic violence but often don’t know that their needs may be different than those of heterosexual women. Ford and colleagues organized focus groups and interviews with 26 women who identified as lesbian or bisexual. They learned that many of the women, even after experiencing life-threatening situations, didn’t see themselves as victims.

“One of the saddest things my research colleagues and I noticed was just how many of these survivors did not believe their own experience was domestic violence because they can only think of domestic violence as occurring between men and women,” says Ford, who notes that her research team connected the women with information about support services at every interview. 

Other women said they hesitated to report the abuse because they didn’t want to tarnish the reputation of a community that has worked hard to establish marriage equality. Several described negative experiences with police officers, who would sometimes arrest both women because they couldn’t identify who the aggressor was.

Ford says resources for lesbian and bisexual women who experience abuse “don’t even come close” to what’s needed. Many of the black and Latino study participants pointed out that centers providing services for LGBT individuals and their families don’t exist in their communities, and that they don’t always feel welcome at centers that cater to the largely white LGBT community or at centers that cater to heterosexual women.

“When you consider the issues documented here, in a city that’s a cultural hotspot for people who want to be supportive of the LGBT community, imagine what it’s like elsewhere,” Ford says.

She adds that a major takeaway from her study was learning how resilient the women were. “Many described having to be the strong force in their own lives, not telling their families because they didn’t want them to think poorly about LGBT people or their own partner,” Ford says. “So there’s a certain resiliency that I think we can tap into and support."