United Methodist Women rally for their sisters at annual Legislative Advocacy Day
By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—Sometimes, being number one or number two isn’t a win but a colossal fail—such as when you’re talking domestic violence statistics, and the stakes are women’s lives right here in South Carolina.
South Carolina United Methodist Women gathered at Epworth Children’s Home March 17 for their annual Legislative Advocacy Day, where they tackled the state’s standing as number two for deaths of women because of domestic violence. Last year, the state was number one, and it has been number one in deaths three times in the last 10 years.
With the theme “Am I My Sister’s Keeper?,” hundreds of women of all ages and races from every district in the conference spent the day learning all they can about domestic violence, with the idea that they will go back to their own communities armed with information and motivated to advocate. Much of the awareness centered on lobbying for passage of state legislation, Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 3433, which had not yet become law as of the Advocate’s press time. If passed, those bills would change how the state looks at domestic violence and hold abusers accountable on a more stringent basis.
The women heard from a host of experts in the field, including the director of a major domestic violence organization, Safe Harbor in Greenville, and a representative of the Assistant Attorney General’s Office who is also program director for the Violence Against Women Act in South Carolina. Women learned statistics, current issues and what they can do to help combat the problem in the name of Christ.
“One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime—that’s a quarter of the women in this room!” said Becky Callaham, Safe Harbor director who served as the day’s keynote speaker. “This has got to stop, and my goal today is to help you understand how we can make this stop.”
While domestic violence is not a problem that can be fixed in one law and one year, United Methodist Women can be a part of the solution, Callaham said.
“Our responsibility is to change societal norms that say (domestic violence) is normal and OK,” Callaham said to fervent applause. “We must recognize that it is a social problem, stop asking women ‘why don’t you just leave,’ and start asking ‘why won’t he stop abusing and how can we make it better?’”
Marie Sazehn, program director for VAWA and a representative of the Assistant Attorney General’s Office, said the numbers are staggering, but the United Methodist Women can be a big part of pushing through legislation to help curb the problem and save lives.
“We want tougher penalties for the abuser and help for people who might not be able to help themselves,” Sazehn said. “We don’t want to be a number one or a number two anymore (in statistics).”
Breaking cycles, demanding protection
Legislative Advocacy Day began with a welcome from Rachel Shupe, South Carolina UMW social action coordinator who organized the event.
The Rev. John Holler, Epworth executive director, led the women in an opening invocation and then an update on the children’s home, which is heavily supported by UMW groups across the state. He said Epworth is “a place of hope, a place of dreams,” which is celebrating a 100 percent high school graduation rate, with 100 percent of the children going on to higher education.
He recalled a talk with a young girl shortly after he took the position at Epworth nine years ago. When he asked the girl, who was about to return to her home, whether it was a good thing to be going home, she told him, “I’m not sure—I’m glad to be going home, but I don’t want to get hurt anymore.”
“That’s why the topic for today is so timely; domestic violence and abuse touches so many in our society,” Holler told the crowded room. “None of us wants to get hurt, but that’s not always a reality.”
Epworth is about breaking cycles, whether abuse, poverty, family violence and neglect, and he encouraged the women to learn all they can, pray and then go out into the world modeling nonviolent behavior and advocating for legal protections and other change that can help people like the little girl he encountered all those years ago.
The Rev. Brenda Kneece, of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, spoke next, talking about the need for Christian women to live in unity with each other and with people of other faiths as everyone works toward the common good. Holding two items in her hand—a Bible and a newspaper—she emphasized the importance of Christian advocacy, calling upon the women to learn what they can about domestic violence today and then take it to their local school board, city council and county council.
“Your interaction, where you take the daily news and interweave it with the Good News, should happen at home,” Kneece said. “So go home, make an appointment with your legislator or your local representative … and let them hear you demand this protection, because you are your sister’s keeper.”
Marlene Spencer, president of the South Carolina UMW, said if women stand together and truly be their sister’s keepers, they can have the chance to change the culture for good, and for God.
“Domestic violence affects people of all socio-economic, religious and educational backgrounds, every culture, every group,” Spencer said. “This is reality, people, and if we want to stop domestic violence, we need to work together.”
‘It can happen to anybody’
The women heard next from Sazehn, who illuminated the problem for the room:
- In 2013, 46 people were killed because of domestic violence, and 38 of them were women.
- Of those killed, 65 percent were white and 32 percent black.
- The youngest victim was 19, the oldest was 81 and the average age was 41.
- Deaths occurred in 23 of the 46 counties, with 78 percent killed by guns, 13 percent by knife and the rest strangulation.
- There are 18 shelters in the state.
“Domestic violence can happen to anybody,” Sazehn said, noting her clients have included a high school art teacher, registered nurse, vet, police officer, even a domestic violence shelter employee. One lived in a singlewide trailer; another in a $600,000 home on a lake. One walked two miles to work each day; another’s husband owned a Maserati.
“‘Why did she not just leave him?’ is not the right question to ask,” Sazehn said. “The victim is not to blame.”
Sometimes, a woman might not leave a domestic violence situation for a variety of reasons: she’s concerned her husband will get custody of the children, she doesn’t know where she will live, she doesn’t have any money, she needs healthcare and her only insurance is through the abuser, she’s scared of retribution or is being controlled.
Additionally, she said, the period when a woman tries to leave her abuser is one of the most critically dangerous times in her life.
Ellie Setser, of the American Association of University Women, gave legislative updates following lunch and encouraged the women to do their part to contact legislators and urge them to support domestic violence legislation.” Domestic violence is in high school, too,” Setser said. “We really do have to change the culture.”
Faith groups make a big difference
In her keynote address, Callaham went deeper into much of what Sazehn discussed that morning, telling the crowd, “Domestic violence is not just that incident when some man gets drunk after he gets paid on a Friday night and beats up his woman in some trailer park. It’s not happening to ‘somebody else’—we are those people. It’s a pattern, and it happens, and it keeps on happening.”
Callaham explained that domestic violence doesn’t just involve physical brutality; financial and sexual abuse is often involved, too, and emotional abuse is usually the worst part.
A victim feels fear constantly, Callaham said, not just when the violence is anticipated, but on a random Tuesday, when she doesn’t come home at 5:30 on the nose. She can go to a shelter, but she’s afraid: what happens when her 60 or 90 days are up? She’s afraid to call the police: what if they don’t show up on time, don’t believe her or side with her abuser? She’s afraid if she does leave, then her abuser will take her to court and get custody of the kids, or even just 50 percent custody.
“The FBI reports domestic violence as the leading cause of injury to women, and yet it’s the least reported,” Callaham said. “So what are we going to do about it?”
The faith community has a particular responsibility in this. Victims rank faith communities as the least used and least helpful when it comes to domestic violence, yet faith communities “have the most powerful voice,” Callaham said.
She urged attendees to encourage their pastor to talk about domestic violence from the pulpit, “because when the pastor preaches about it, everyone’s going to be talking about it.” She also urged people to seek a speaker for their church from Sccadvasa.org.
But most importantly this year, she said, people need to be calling their legislators and urging them to support Senate Bill 3 and House Bill 3433.
“If we don’t get a strong bill passed this year, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Callaham said. “This is our time; this is our 15 minutes. And I challenge every one of you to contact your legislator.
“You can change the culture of domestic violence in this state.”
Workshops rounded out the day, with Patricia Ravenhorst, attorney and director of the South Carolina Immigrant Victim Network, presenting on human trafficking; Dr. Sheryl Montgomery Mitchell, nurse practitioner, presenting on healthy advocacy; and Joanne Day, of the League of Women Voters of South Carolina, presenting on voting advocacy for children and families.
UMW leaders are already at work on next year’s Legislative Advocacy Day, which is planned for February 2016 at Epworth. Learn more about the work of the UMW at www.umcsc.org/umw.