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Domestic abuse no longer hiding in the closets

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Domestic abuse is no longer a dark hidden secret among family members, it has found its way out of the home and into everyday life.

Haskell Indian Nations University and other colleges throughout the country have not been immune says Bob Prue, director of the Health Relationships Project.

Patterns of abuse found their way onto college campuses and the Healthy Relationship Project, a joint venture between Haskell and the University of Kansas is working toward not only curbing the rising tide of domestic abuse, but trying to educate students in the hope that what they learn will help stem the tide of abuse across Indian country.

A Feb. 17 conference at Haskell was intended to raise awareness among students about the cycle of abuse and urge them to step forward and say "No" to domestic violence.

One of every three American women is battered repeatedly every year and the numbers among Native American women is estimated to be even greater. Although tribal police forces throughout Indian country are being educated on how to respond to domestic violence, they have found they must work through not only the abuse they see, but also the secrecy about abuse within families.

Cecilia Fire Thunder of Cangleska Inc. has been battling domestic violence on the Pine Ridge reservation for years and is adamant that the cycle can't be broken as long as the silence about abuse continues.

"We've learned to be quiet and keep quiet," Fire Thunder said. "It's something we've learned over many generations."

That silence has allowed the dirty little secret of abuse to continue, but there is a small ray of hope, say those working in the field of domestic abuse. Each year Native American women are reporting more and more instances, something experts feel has come from educating women about abuse.

Conference sponsors say they hope that by educating students about domestic violence, a trickle-down effect may come into play. If students, away from their home environments where domestic violence is more commonplace, can learn how to change the behavior of both abusers and victims it may mean a decrease of domestic violence at home, they say.

Abusers will have to learn to change their behavior and channel it into non-violent forms and victims need to step forward and not be afraid to report violence against them by boyfriends and husbands. The wall of silence Fire Thunder is battling against must be broken down, she said.

"It certainly is coming from somewhere," Prue said. "There is a fairly significant problem with relationship violence on campus."

Alcohol fits into the equation of domestic abuse and violence against women. "A couple of years ago a survey was done on alcohol abuse, but it only had a couple questions about violence and at that time 69 percent of the students said they had experienced some form of violence in previous years. It's pretty astronomical."

Prue said the Healthy Relationships Project was started to try to change those numbers and educate both men and women on the problems of domestic violence.

"It's a different setting here," Prue said in regard to Haskell because so many cultures reside in one place.

The fact more cases of domestic violence are reported gives Prue hope the Healthy Relationships Project is getting the word out to students. He said there has been a fairly rapid increase in the numbers of incidents reported. "It's probably not that anymore is going on, but that more people are reporting it."

Fire Thunder is an outspoken advocate on wellness, personal responsibility and community healing. She said she sees sexual violence and its ties to violence as an issue that needs to be addressed, especially among college students.

"Too often we talk about alcohol use and abuse. But we don't talk about how it puts you in a real high risk situation to be violated sexually. A lot of women are being raped and sexually violated while they are drunk or while they are drinking. Because of being drunk a lot of women will not report that rape or sexual violation because our society blames them. 'Oh, you shouldn't have been drunk. Oh, you shouldn't have been drinking. You shouldn't have gone there ...'

"No one ever says 'Oh, let's take you to the emergency room,' you know. We immediately blame the victim. Fifty percent of emergency room visits by Native women go unreported because they refuse to file charges or submit to the rape test. That's because their assumption is that nobody cares."

Fire Thunder said part of the message she wants to give young women is if they are drinking they need to be aware they are putting themselves at risk for sexual violation, physical abuse and even death.

Being drunk at a party now means a woman may be sexually assaulted by not just one man, but also several because of the trend of rapes by multiple men, she said.

"It seems to be common among our young people now that they are gang-raping young women who are passed out. We want to make sure that we get that message out because they aren't hearing it very often."

Prue said he hopes some of those who attended the conference and those who come to the Healthy Relationship Project functions hear that message.

"One of the hopes that college students coming out of their normal environment (seeing) some different behaviors ... when they go back home they won't tolerate it anymore and say, 'This isn't right,'" Prue said. "They'll learn how to speak up. That is what this conference is all about, people learning how to speak up."