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Violence Against Women

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Domestic and intimate partner violence

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What is domestic and intimate partner violence?

Domestic violence is when one person in a relationship purposely hurts another person physically or emotionally. Domestic violence is also called intimate partner violence because it often is caused by a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or ex-boyfriend. Women also can be abusers.

People of all races, education levels, and ages experience domestic abuse. In the United States, more than 5 million women are abused by an intimate partner each year.

Domestic violence includes:

  • Physical abuse like hitting, shoving, kicking, biting, or throwing things
  • Emotional abuse like yelling, controlling what you do, or threatening to cause serious problems for you
  • Sexual abuse like forcing you to do something sexual you don't want to do

Here are some key points about domestic and intimate partner violence:

  • If you are in immediate danger, you can call 911. It is possible for the police to arrest an abuser and to escort you and your children to a safe place. Learn more about getting help for domestic abuse.
  • Often, abuse starts as emotional abuse and then becomes physical later. It's important to get help early.
  • Sometimes it is hard to know if you are being abused. You can learn more about signs of abuse.
  • Your partner may try to make you feel like the abuse is your fault. Remember that you cannot make someone mistreat you. The abuser is responsible for his or her behavior. Abuse can be a way for your partner to try to have control over you.
  • Violence can cause serious physical and emotional problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. It's important to try to take care of your health. And if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope with abuse, get help.
  • There probably will be times when your partner is very kind. Unfortunately, abusers often begin the mistreatment again after these periods of calm. In fact, over time, abuse often gets worse, not better. Even if your partner promises to stop the abuse, make sure to learn about hotlines and other ways to get help for abuse.
  • An abusive partner needs to get help from a mental health professional. But even if he or she gets help, the abuse may not stop.

Being hurt by someone close to you is awful. Reach out for support from family, friends, and community organizations.

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Getting help for domestic abuse

If you are being abused, get help. The longer the abuse goes on, the more damage it can cause. You are not alone. There are people who will believe you and who want to help.

Consider these steps if you are in an abusive situation:

  • If you are in immediate danger, call 911 or leave.
  • If you are hurt, go to a local hospital emergency room.
  • Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233) or 800-787-3224 (TDD). The hotline offers help in many languages 24 hours a day, every day. Hotline staff can give you the phone numbers of local shelters and other resources.
  • Plan ahead. Violence sometimes gets worse right after leaving, so think about a safe place to go. You can get advice from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
  • Look up state resources for a list of local places to get help.
  • Review a full checklist of items to take if you leave, such as your marriage license, any children's birth certificates, and money. Put these things somewhere you can get them quickly. Of course, if you are in immediate danger, leave without them.
  • Have a cellphone handy. Try not to call for help from your home phone or a shared cellphone since an abuser may be able to trace the numbers. If possible, get a prepaid cellphone or your own cellphone. Some domestic violence shelters offer free cellphones.
  • Contact your family court (or domestic violence court, if offered by your state) for information about getting a court order of protection. If you need legal help but don't have much money, your local domestic violence agency may be able to help you find a lawyer who will work for free.
  • Create a code word to use with friends and family to let them know you are in danger. If possible, agree on a secret location where they can pick you up.
  • If you can, hide an extra set of car keys so you can leave if your partner takes away your keys.
  • When you leave, try to bring any evidence of abuse, like threatening notes from your partner or copies of police reports.
  • Reach out to someone you trust — a family member, friend, co-worker, or spiritual leader. Look into ways to get emotional help, like a support group or mental health professional.

Sometimes a woman may hit a man first, and then she ends up getting hurt badly because the man is stronger. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if you sometimes hit or use other kinds of violence.

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Domestic violence shelters

Domestic violence shelters can give you and your children temporary housing, food and other basic items, and help finding other assistance. Usually you can stay at a shelter for free. Services may include:

  • Individual counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Support groups
  • Job training and help finding work
  • Legal help
  • Help finding permanent housing
  • Childcare and other services for your children
  • Help getting financial aid

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Transitional housing

Transitional housing focuses on giving families a safe space and time to recover from domestic violence. Families live independently, in separate apartments, while they also receive needed services. Services can include:

  • Individual counseling
  • Family counseling
  • Support groups
  • Job training
  • Help finding affordable, permanent housing
  • Legal help
  • Childcare and others services for your children

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Domestic abuse and children

Children living in a home where there is abuse may overhear adults fighting, see bruises after the abuse is over, or witness the actual abuse. These experience can have serious effects, including:

  • Behavior problems and problems at school
  • Feelings of guilt for not being able to stop the abuse
  • Depression, anxiety, substance use, and other mental health problems
  • Health problems even many years later

In addition, children who see abuse at home are likely to think that abuse is a normal part of relationships. They are more likely than other children to abuse someone or be abused when they grow up.

If you are being abused and have children, you can take steps to help them:

  • Get help for your children by getting help for yourself. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for information about leaving an abusive situation or taking care of yourself and your children if you are not ready to leave.
  • Talk to a health professional, like a pediatrician or a counselor.
  • Be supportive and available to listen to your children.
  • Make sure children know that the abuse is not their fault.
  • Tell children to stay away if you are being hit.
  • See if you can find ways to reduce your stress, like getting emotional support from a friend.

You also can get help from the court system. Your local domestic violence agency can help you understand your options and find a lawyer. Some lawyers work for free if you cannot afford to pay. Court options include:

  • A court order of protection to keep an abuser away from you and your children. If you get an order that protects your children, give a copy to their school.
  • A custody order, which can say that your children will live with you and not your partner. If your children are going to see their father, they may be able to see him at a visitation center, which is set up to be safe.
  • An order to make the abuser pay child support.

Sometimes, abuse begins when you are pregnant. Abuse can cause serious health problems for a baby even before it is born. Also, some men try to stop their partners from using birth control. Talk to your doctor about protecting your health and about birth control that you can use without your partner knowing.

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HIV and domestic abuse

Domestic violence and HIV are connected in a number of ways:

  • If you are currently in an abusive relationship, you are more likely to get HIV. That's partly because abusive men are more likely to have sexual partners other than their wife. Also, if you are in an abusive relationship, your partner may force you to have sex, and forced sex can cause cuts that can let HIV enter your body. In addition, an abusive partner may refuse to use a condom, which could put you at risk for HIV.
  • If you were physically or sexually abused as a child, you have an increased risk of getting HIV. That's because women who were abused as children are more likely to have a higher number of sex partners. Women who were abused as children are also less likely to use condoms each time they have sex.
  • Women with HIV may be at risk of violence when they tell a partner about their HIV status. Take these steps to lower the risk that your partner will react violently:
    • Tell your partner that you have HIV before you get sexually involved.
    • Tell your partner that you have HIV in a semi-public place. A public park is a good place, because it gives you some privacy, but other people are around in case you need help.
    • If you feel at all threatened by your partner's reaction, stop seeing each other or at least keep meetings public for a while.

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Why some women don't leave

People who have never been in an abusive relationship may wonder, "Why doesn't she just leave?" There are many reasons why a woman may stay in an abusive relationship. She may have little or no money and worry about supporting herself and her children. It may be hard for her to contact friends and family who could help her. Or she may feel too frightened, confused, or embarrassed to leave.

If you are in an abusive relationship and are not sure if you are ready to leave, keep in mind that:

  • Abuse often gets worse. It may be possible for a partner to change, but it takes work and time. If your partner is blaming you or other factors for his or her behavior, your partner probably is not ready to change.
  • You deserve to be safe and happy.
  • Even if you are not ready to leave, you can still contact a domestic violence hotline or a local shelter for support, safety planning, and services.
  • People want to help. Many services are available at no cost, including childcare, temporary housing, job training, and legal aid.
  • You need support. Reach out to people you trust.

If a friend or loved one is not leaving an abusive relationship, you may feel frustrated at times. Remember that your friend needs your support.

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Challenges facing older women

Older women who are abused often face the same challenges as younger women, but they face additional ones, too. These may include:

  • Having grown up and married during a time when domestic abuse was tolerated or ignored
  • Having lived with abuse for many years, which can lead to problems like poor self-esteem
  • Feeling a duty to take care of an aging partner
  • Not knowing a lot about risks of sexually transmitted infections, how to use a condom, or how to negotiate with a partner to use a condom
  • Feeling afraid to live alone after being with someone for many years
  • Having less of a support network, such as when friends retire and move away

If you or someone you know is being abused in later life, you can get help. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or 800-787-3224 (TDD) or the National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life at 608-255-0539. Sometimes, an older woman with an illness or disability is abused by someone who is supposed to help take care of her. Learn more about elder abuse.

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More information on Domestic and intimate partner violence

Read more from womenshealth.gov

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Content last updated: May 18, 2011.

Resources last updated: May 18, 2011.

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