The numbers are chilling: One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, according to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence. A U.S. Senate report states that “domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States.”
Area groups are bringing that topic to light again because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month - a time when advocates, victims and community members join together to talk about and help prevent domestic violence and sexual assault in the U.S.
The South Dakota Coalition Ending Domestic & Sexual Violence encouraged the public to join in a ‘Day of Unity’ across the state Monday and held events in Pierre, Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
Women in Pierre empowered and supported one another on the Capitol steps while embracing this year’s Day of Unity theme – mourning those lost to domestic violence, celebrating progress and connecting with each other.
“Any awareness that we can get makes an impact,” said Kami Kessler, executive director of the Missouri Shores Domestic Violence Center in Pierre. “Domestic violence is hard for people to talk about, but it affects everybody.”
Domestic Violence in South Dakota
Several speakers addressed community members present yesterday, including U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler, who serves as the Tribal Liaison for the South Dakota’s U.S. Attorney’s Office. Seiler said that their office’s current priority is to eliminate domestic violence and sexual assault cases despite jurisdictional issues that often accompany them.
“I know firsthand the pain and the suffering and frustrations that go into these kinds of cases,” Seiler said. “U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson has renewed our office’s commitment to prosecuting domestic violence and being involved in domestic violence cases.”
This commitment is especially significant in South Dakota, where abuse rates are high among Native American communities.
Native Americans are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Native American women reports having been raped during her lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson announced on September 28 that South Dakota organizations were awarded over $5.4 million in Department of Justice grants to strengthen efforts to combat domestic violence, sexual assault against women and children, and assist other victims of crime.
Seiler said that a full-time prosecutor is being selected for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, where jurisdictional issues are compounded by the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
Often times in the past, if a non-Indian committed an act of domestic violence on a Native American woman, that went unpunished in the jurisdictional quagmire that exists in Indian country between states, Seiler said.
“This will be the only program like it in the country, in which there will be a tribal prosecutor who also will be able to go into federal courts in North Dakota and South Dakota and prosecute cases,” he said. “This position will be able to bring cases regardless of whether it’s a Native American or non-Indian defendant.”
Seiler said that additional prosecutors are being placed at the tribal court level, which is encouraging more women to come forward in hopes that their case will be prosecuted. But, he added, there is always more to do.
“Congress can reauthorize the violence against women act, and volunteers can provide donations or donate time at their local domestic violence shelters,” Seiler said. “Most importantly, we can teach our children that domestic abuse is never acceptable.”
One woman’s bravery
Annie, a survivor of domestic violence, also spoke out at the Day of Unity event and shared her experience with abuse.
“I had the pleasure to get to know Annie a long time ago, and saw the strength this woman had grown into,” Kessler said. “She touches my heart because she’s alive, and I don’t know that she would be had she never sought us out.”
Annie’s struggle with domestic violence began at the age of 17. For two years she was physically and emotionally abused by her partner, feeling like she had no one to count on and would have to survive it by herself.
After multiple incidents of sever violence and a final “aha” moment, Annie finally left her abuser and went to the Missouri Shores Domestic Violence Center in Pierre, where she found help.
“There is so much of it I choose not to remember, but there are also people who were there along the way that I will never forget,” Annie said. “Those people mean the world to me.”
Annie said that without the courage and love she received from Missouri Shores, she would not be where she is today.
“The wonderful women of Missouri Shores held my hand, hugged me when I needed it, and gave me a safe place to stay,” Annie said. “They gave me the knowledge I needed so that when I was ready, I could make a fresh start. They didn’t treat me like a victim; they treated me like a girlfriend, and never acted like I was less than them.”
The evidence Annie provided in court was not enough to prosecute, and she was unable to press charges. However, she has found comfort and happiness in her new life – filled with a loving marriage, two children and a successful career.
“I know there is a reason for everything, and I believe the reason I had to suffer was to be able to share my story and help other women in similar situations to get out and get help,” she said. “It might be hard at first, but once you’re out, life is so much better. It’s a beautiful thing to be out.”