ADVOCATES commonly quote a Bureau of Justice Statistics figure that a woman is beaten in the United States every 15 seconds. That is based on figures for the number of reported beatings that took place between 1978 and 1982. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) estimates that somewhere between 2 and 6 million women are battered each year.
(To put this in perspective, according to the Bureau of the Census in Washington, there are 97.3 million women 15 and older in the US, of which 58 million are married and living with spouse, married but spouse absent, or a partner in an unmarried couple with no other adult in the household.)
Getting out of the marriage or relationship does not guarantee protection. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics figures, in three-fourths of spouse-on-spouse assaults, the victim was divorced or separated at the time of the incident.
Battering tends to escalate over time, and homicide is sometimes the culmination. In 1986, 40 percent of all female homicide victims were killed by relatives or boyfriends.
Many statistics are based on a fairly small sample, but these still provide some interesting clues to the whole picture of domestic violence.
Women who murdered their husbands were often battered women. According to a study in Cook County (Chicago), Ill., 40 percent of the women who committed homicides were battered women who killed their batterer.
A five-year study at Yale-New Haven Hospital concluded that 40 percent of all injury-related visits to the hospital by women were the result of battering. The study also disclosed that battering was a major precipitating factor in cases of female alcoholism and drug abuse, child abuse, attempted suicide, and situational disorders.
The children are victims, too. Not only is child abuse more likely in homes where the wife is battered, but also, children are very often witnesses to the battering. The NCADV estimates that, of these children, 60 percent of the boys will grow up to be batterers, and 50 percent of the girls will grow up to be battered women. The NCADV also estimates that in one-quarter of violent families, the wife is attacked while pregnant.
One study showed that three-fourths of all battered women reported that their abuser was not violent in public, and that they were not believed when they reported instances of brutality.
Advocates insist that emotional abuse is as devastating as physical abuse. Among the behaviors considered abusive are ridiculing a woman's beliefs or women as a group, criticizing and shouting, attempting to control, and refusal to work or to share money.
Other characteristics of a batterer include extreme suspiciousness and possessiveness, poor self-image, strongly traditional ideas about men's and women's roles, and a tendency to isolate a woman from her family or friends.
It is commonly thought that battering is largely a problem in poorer neighborhoods, but advocates insist that the problem extends across the social spectrum.
``Any woman, rich or poor, black, white, or Latina [or otherwise], could be a battered woman,'' says Alba Baerga, who is on the staff of Casa Myrna Vazquez shelter in Boston. Upper-class or upper-middle-class women are less likely to report abuse, however.
All over the US, there are shelters offering help to women who are battered. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in Washington, D.C., has a toll-free hotline, 800-333-SAFE. Women who call there can get information on shelters and programs near them.
Shelters also share information. A shelter in one state, for instance, will refer a woman fleeing for her life to a shelter in another state. Some shelters in Boston offer transitional housing. And there is a long-established network in Massachusetts of ``safe homes'' - homes in the community that take in battered women. This is not common in most parts of the country, according to the NCADV.
Not all women who come to a shelter leave the batterer. ``Some have been in shelters before,'' Ms. Baerga says.
``Some come for half an hour and decide to give another chance to the relationship. Some come determined to be independent, to find an apartment. Our main goal is to provide a safe place where they can make their own decision.''
Katrina Pope, on the staff of Elizabeth Stone House, concurs. ``We aren't here to say you can't go back. We're here to provide as many resources as possible, and to say there are possibilities in your life, there are options. No one deserves to be beaten.''
One of the main obstacles to putting a stop to battering is that women want to deny that there is a problem.
``Some of them are strong enough to say, `Yes, I am a battered woman.' Some of them are very open about it,'' says Baerga.``Others are here for two months - and don't even remember they were in the shelter. It can take your whole life and you still never admit you were [battered].
``The way we measure success here: Only one phone call might be a success. It might take the woman her whole life to make that phone call.''