According to the U.S. Surgeon General, domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women age fifteen to forty-four, more common than auto accidents, mugging, and cancer combined. This is one of many staggering statistics Sara Barber is trying to lower.
Sara Barber is the Executive Director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Barber began working in the field of domestic violence advocacy thirteen years ago to make a positive difference. “I approached my job from the point of view that if I can help just one family in our state or in our community, then my job will be worthwhile.”
Barber often encountered awkward silences with people when she explained her previous role as director of a batterer intervention program because instead of working with victims, she primarily worked with offenders. She worked with the court system dealing with offenders to hold them accountable and to try to change their behaviors for the better. When confronted by people who would say things like “I could never do work like that,” she responded by explaining how domestic violence in our state will never change if we do not change the people who are perpetrating the violence.
When asked if there was any bad stigma associated with getting into the advocacy work she does now for SCCADVASA she stated, “There is not a lot of stigma against the work we are doing. I think that people are very supportive. I also think that when we talk about domestic and sexual violence and the high levels of sexual violence in our society, generally people are supportive because this is something we do not want to see going on. We may run into opposition and people may think that we are wrong about certain things or policies, but the general perception is that we do good and worthwhile work.”
The work that Barber is doing is important because South Carolina currently ranks second in the nation for women killed by men according to the Violence Policy Center. Of the homicide victims that knew their offenders, 68% were murdered by a husband, common-law husband, ex-husband, or boyfriend. Every year since the Violence Policy Center started reporting murders of women by men, South Carolina has been among the top ten states.
Barber’s work is important because South Carolina has a serious problem with lethal domestic violence as well as problems with how our state handles cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. “There are a lot of systemic issues with how we deal with domestic violence as a state on every level. Whether it be through DSS, through churches, the media, or law enforcement response. I think that the legislation and the special committee meetings that were held really allowed people to speak and started a new conversation that needed to be had about domestic violence.” Policies that protect and help survivors of domestic violence cannot be created and implemented without a conversation about domestic violence.
Barber is working to change the way people talk about domestic violence and sexual assault. For so long, domestic violence was an issue that was supposed to be kept quiet within the family because it was shameful. “I think those feelings still persist and I think when people think about domestic violence and sexual assault, they think of it happening to other people.”
She also addressed the stereotypes and misconceptions associated with domestic violence and sexual assault. “We know that statistics show us that the vast majority of people who experience sexual assault know the person who raped or assaulted them. We cling to this idea that it was a woman alone in a dark alley and we wonder what was she wearing and what was she drinking. People are always asking questions about what the victim did, as if we could somehow protect ourselves from becoming a victim by doing that. With domestic violence, we think that it happens to people who live in certain areas of town or who may be of a lower socio-economic status, rather than recognizing that an offender could be our priest, a lawyer, our bank manager, and conversely a victim could be all of those people too. We like to put distance between ourselves and the issue of domestic and sexual violence because it feels like we are protecting ourselves. I also think by focusing so much on victims, we are not holding offenders accountable. We are always asking questions like what did the victim say, what was the victim wearing, whether or not they have been drinking, and we use those questions to blame the victim, to distance ourselves from it. Perversely, we also use the same ideas as excuses for perpetrators so when it comes to sexual violence, we will be asking if the victim was drinking as if that makes her culpable for being assaulted. If the offender was drinking, the behavior would typically be excused because someone would state that the offender was not their normal, sober self. You see that a lot in domestic violence. If the victim was using substances then that’s used as a reason of why she is a victim and if the offender is using substances it is an explanation and an excuse for their behavior.”
As executive director of SCAADVASA, Barber has been able to start many conversations on domestic violence, one of them being Bill S.3. “It was passed and signed into law by our governor and it changed the way domestic violence is charged and prosecuted. There were also some state prohibitions around firearms possession which was an important change. I think we have a lot to do to implement those changes and to ensure implementation happens appropriately.”
So how does South Carolina continue to progress? Barber recommends speaking up. “It is really important that we speak up, that we talk about what has happened, that we talk about the realities of what domestic violence and sexual assault are. We must also speak up when people make jokes or stereotypical comments about domestic violence and survivors. When that occurs, we must step in and correct that oppression. As a community, we have to have an honest conversation about violence because if we do not, then we are going to perpetuate this cycle onto future generations. We must have honest conversations and talk about prevention so we don’t carry on down the road.”
We can join Sara Barber in her journey to help as many families as possible by following her advice and speaking about what so many have failed to speak about before.