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Murders by Husbands Rise Despite Publicity

Tough laws, media coverage help battered women escape; but change in society's attitudes still needed, advocates say. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1990


THE October murder of Carol Stuart, apparently by her husband, has highlighted the growing number of women being murdered by their partners. Mrs. Stuart's case received extraordinary national attention. So did the case of Helle Crafts, a Connecticut flight attendant - and that of Zameena Baksh, a Virginia woman under police protection. Mrs. Crafts's husband was convicted of murder; Mrs. Baksh's husband was arrested in connection with his wife's death.

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Fully 31 percent of female homicide victims in 1988 were killed by a husband or boyfriend, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). That percentage has remained steady for a decade, the bureau says. But because murders of all types have increased, so has the number of women killed by male partners.

Between 1975 and 1985, there was a nearly 30 percent increase in murders of white females by their white male partners, according to a study by Angela Browne. Dr. Browne is a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester whose research was recently published in Law and Society Review. Her studies also suggest that FBI statistics are too low, and that more than 50 percent of women murdered are killed by their partners.

The rise she has helped document frustrates experts on domestic violence, because it is occurring despite progress in developing services for battered women and strong laws against domestic violence.

In 1975, the situation was bleak, Browne says. Women did not talk about being abused for fear of not being believed. There were few places for them to go. In many states, battering was a misdemeanor and marital rape was excluded from criminal statutes. If a woman killed the man abusing her, it was difficult for her to successfully plead self-defense.

But in part because of the women's movement, shelters for battered women began to pop up in the mid-'70s. By 1980, 48 states had passed some kind of domestic violence legislation. Today, in 12 states, the law requires police to arrest when there is probable cause that domestic violence has occurred. Women also obtain protective orders against abusive partners. News media coverage has also increased.

``I think we're uncovering the problem [of domestic violence],'' says Anne Menard, of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence. ``Our perception of it as more serious is a positive result of more accurate press coverage. It's being treated as something that's not a fluke and not without social implications.''

Since shelters became available, the numbers of women killing their partners have decreased 25 percent, Browne says. And yet the numbers of men killing their partners have increased. Why?

``It could indicate a number of things: a desperate reaction to [men's]losing control of women,'' says Ann Jones, author of ``Women Who Kill.'' ``It could be part of a general cultural devaluing of women, which we're seeing in great increases in pornographic magazines, videos, and cable TV.''

Others say it may be part of a backlash resulting from a changing status quo. Some experts believe the potential for homicide is greatest at the point when a woman in a male-dominated relationship takes a big step toward asserting independence - becoming pregnant, filing for a divorce, calling the police. ``What men often say is, `If I can't have her, nobody can,''' Jones says.