How Doctors Can Help

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Domestic Violence and Human Rights
Did you know

  • In just two minutes, you can change her life in a profound way?
  • If you don’t listen, she may never speak up again?
  • You may be the only lifeline she has?

Dr. Jane Schaller came back a different person from war-torn South Africa in 1985. Her experience led to Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based group that believes health professionals have a great moral and ethical influence on human rights issues. Schaller, who has documented the effects of war on children, as quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association (Vol. 52, 1997), says:

“It is true that one doctor cannot end a tyranny, make all children well or end all torture used against innocent human beings. But one physician can make some difference, and a group of physicians or other health professionals can make a great deal of difference…”

In this country, there is another war going in, one in which many, many women and children are victims.

All too often, though, our society casts a blind eye on this war, which is fought inside the home. This war is domestic violence. Sadly, because our culture still takes the stance that this is private, family business, domestic violence remains largely a silent epidemic.

Health Care and Human Rights: Intrinsically Linked

Dr. Jonathan Mann has been called one of the most important figures in the 20th century fight against global poverty, illness and social injustice. Until his death, Mann was an international health doctor and AIDS and human rights activist. He linked health care with human rights. Mann said the two are intrinsically linked; that the promotion and protection of one hinges on the promotion and protection of the other.

Dr. Mann was born in 1947. On Dec. 10 of that same year, the United Nations drafted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” While universal in its guarantee of human rights to all people, 11 of its 30 articles directly apply to the right to a life free from domestic violence. For instance, Article 1 gives women the right to equal dignity; Article 5 states women have the right to a life free from degrading treatment; and Article 25 guarantees women have the right to a healthy standard of living. That article also promotes special protection for mothers and their children.

As doctors, Article 25 should be of special interest to you, for it speaks of good health and well-being as a guaranteed right. Women and children who are victims of domestic violence have lost that right. While at Harvard University as a professor of health and human rights, Dr. Mann helped the academic community realize that illness and health are related to isolation and stigmatization. From personal experience as a journalist and as a survivor, I can tell you that there are few situations in life that isolate you more than domestic violence. And, the continued stigma of domestic violence causes most women to remain silent.

Thats where you, as medical practitioners, come in.

Did you know:

  • One major study found that if victims or potential victims are identified and treated early, health care systems will also benefit?
  • Health care costs will be cut by at least 20 percent, with hospital-based domestic violence interventions?
  • In four studies, 70-81% of the patients said they would like their healthcare providers to ask them privately about domestic violence?
  • Yet, in 1999, a JAMA study found that only 10% of primary care physicians routinely screen for this type of abuse.

Its not hard. All you have to do is:

  • Maintain eye contact when asking if she is (or her children are) a victim of abuse
  • Don’t diminish what she says, because you won’t get a second chance if you do
  • Believe her, and offer resources to get needed help

In 1993, the United Nations took the protection of women, their rights and their dignity, a step further. Its “Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women” defines any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. In part, this involves physical, sexual and psychological violence including battering, sexual abuse of female children (and) marital rape.

As practitioners, you have a special opportunity to give attention to these two Declarations, and to further the work of Doctors Mann and Schaller. You can do something that most people cannot: You can screen the women and children who come to you.

It takes little time, it involves having only compassion and the desire to help others, and it can save lives. While most women do not seek treatment for the injuries they sustain as a victim of domestic violence, they will come to your clinics, your offices or your emergency rooms, for other medical reasons. This is when you have the opportunity to be on the forefront of helping to eradicate a problem that continues to be an epidemic in the United States.

NOTE: Quotes from Dr. Schaller reprinted with permission from Physicians for Human Rights.

* * * *

My next book, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister, comes out November 17. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.

You can find these books either online or in print at a bookstore near you, at BenBella Books, Nellie Bly Books, Amazon, on iTunes and Barnes and Noble.

For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.

Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!


Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”


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