Only two days after an international campaign against domestic violence ended, Saniyah Lawrence, 16, was stabbed in the neck and killed on Dec. 12. Her 18-year-old boyfriend was charged with murder.
Her death renewed cries for greater action in NYC to protect women against gender-based violence. The latest police reports show that in 2021 in New York City, there were 260,084 reports of domestic violence, or about 700 calls a day. The city’s HOPE online portal to deal with cases of gender violence received 50,000 visits in 2021.
The Bronx is the New York City borough with the highest rate of violence against women, per resident. At least 9,500 cases were recorded by the Bronx district attorney’s office in 2021 and by December 2022, 1,300 cases were under investigation.
An analysis of data from police and district attorney offices across the city shows that the Bronx leads all boroughs in chronic cases of domestic violence, proportional to the number of residents – 797 in 2021. Chronic cases involve long term abuse, physical and emotional harm, or death.
At a vigil following Lawrence’s death, Iesha Sekou, founder of Street Corner Resources, said, “Some people say that if you call the police, that’s snitching. No. In this case, it would have meant saving a life.”
UN Women, a United Nations entity that promotes gender equality and empowerment of women, defines gender violence as not just physical violence, but also removing women’s and girls’ autonomy, such as forcing marriage or mutilating genitals. The organization sponsors the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, ending on Human Rights Day, Dec. 10.
In New York, the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-based Violence, the Commission on Gender Equity and the Mayor’s Office of Equity co-lead the NYC campaign.
“While no one may disagree that rape is wrong, through words, actions and inaction, sexual violence and sexual harassment is normalized and trivialized, leading us down a slippery slope of rape culture,” UN Women said in its report “16 Ways You Can Stand Against Rape Culture.”
But sometimes the victims themselves don’t know that rape is a crime. Jessica, a Latina who lives in the South Bronx neighborhood of Melrose and who agreed to speak only if her identity was protected, is one of those victims.
When she was 12 years old, she was coerced by five men between the ages of 17-20 to have sex. When she lived in Colombia, she was penetrated and raped while her grandmother – who was her guardian – was at work. By then, she thought it was normal. She even judged herself for years for having been “easy to have” – she used another pejorative term – since she was a child.
“I didn’t feel anything, I didn’t feel pleasure, actually it took me a long time to feel an orgasm… at that time I thought that was normal, that since I was no longer a virgin I had to sleep with whomever wanted… I was afraid they would tell my grandmother,” she said.
For years, Jessica says she has had toxic relationships with men. Twenty years later, now living in the Bronx, she learned what had really happened to her when she was just a teenager: she was raped and sexually abused. She realized it while talking to her psychologist, after having been raped again, this time by an intimate partner.
“First they tell you that you are not attractive enough, then they tell you that you are fat, that nobody will love you, until the beatings come,” Jessica said in an exclusive interview.
According to data from the World Health Organization, 30%, or nearly one in three women worldwide — has suffered physical or sexual violence. That computes to 736 million women in 2021. Usually, the culprit is someone the victim knows like fathers, uncles, brothers, partners or ex-partners.
NYC data from police and district attorney offices on domestic violence indicates that Black women are the most likely to end up killed as a result of domestic violence. They account for 30% of homicides even though they make up only 13% of New York’s population. Hispanics are second on the list: 25.1% of the murders, although they make up 14.6% of the city’s inhabitants, according to U.S. Census numbers.
That’s why Samantha Lagler, a social worker and women’s rights advocate in the South Bronx, said: “We have to go out and vote for our vagina…to stand up for our rights as women.”
While domestic violence against men is much less, data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that one in 14 men is also a victim of domestic violence nationally.
The UN Women office has said that “rape culture” feeds on persistent gender inequalities and attitudes about gender and sexuality. Their platform to eliminate it includes: redefining masculinity, promoting the importance of consensus, ending blaming the victims, encouraging reporting, and educating new generations, among other steps.
The New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence provides psychological help, support, and legal assistance to victims. New York State has a law that criminalizes domestic violence and recognizes all victims regardless of race, color, religion, sex, age, entity, national origin, immigration status or citizenship. Authorities urge victims – or people close to them – to report.
The New York City Mayor’s Office also has a website dedicated to combating domestic violence: www.nyc.gov/nyhope and a 24-hour hotline: 1 (800) 621-HOPE (4673) TTY: 1 (866) 604-5350. Those who have an emergency or know someone in need are encouraged to call 311 or 911 to get assistance.
In addition, Family Justice Centers (FJCs) in New York have completely free services and confidential telephone and in-person assistance to victims and survivors of domestic and gender-based violence. All are welcome, regardless of language, income, gender identity or immigration status. Their Bronx office is located at 198 East 161st Street, 2nd Floor, and encourages walk-ins or phone calls to: 718-508-1220.
The message to victims of gender violence from activists and city authorities is clear and urgent: You are not alone, you are not the only one, you are a victim of a crime and you have your rights. ASK FOR HELP.