Opinion Extra

Wilson, Barber: Remember victims, celebrate victories over domestic violence

Presenters hold silhouettes representing SC victims of domestic violence during the 2014 South Carolina Silent Witness Story ceremony.
Presenters hold silhouettes representing SC victims of domestic violence during the 2014 South Carolina Silent Witness Story ceremony. online@thestate.com

On Tuesday, we will gather at the State House for the 18th annual Silent Witness ceremony to remember and honor those South Carolinians who lost their lives to domestic violence during the previous year.

This ceremony, which features the names of each victim being read aloud, serves as a way for us to honor these victims and their families, as well as celebrate the progress we have made in the fight to end this senseless crime.

Again this year, South Carolina ranked first in the “When Men Murder Women” report released every September by the Violence Policy Center. (Since 96 percent of the victims were murdered by someone they knew, the report is a nearly perfect measure of domestic violence.) This is the fourth time we have led the nation in female homicide victimization and the 18th time in the report’s 18-year history that we have ranked in the top 10. While the rate is on a steep decline nationally, our state’s rate remains stubbornly high, at more than twice the national average.

The home, the place we most associate with safety and love, can be a very dangerous place for women, men and children living within the daily reality of physical and emotional abuse. Homicides cause us to pause and take notice of domestic violence; they pull back the curtain on a landscape of violence that cuts through our communities. But they do not tell the entire story. In 2013-2014, more than 3,000 people requested emergency shelter, and more than 20,000 emergency calls were made to hotlines operated by the 13 domestic violence organizations in South Carolina.

Numbers and data tell us about the scope of the problem, but they do not move us. What touches us are the stories of lives lived and lost and the grief that continues to deeply affect children, friends and family members. Listening to survivors of domestic violence describe their experiences and how they were bravely able to reclaim their life is profoundly humbling and moving. Their voices and legacies are the foundation upon which we can promote real change.

This past year, our state came together in a big way to take a stand against domestic violence. Attention turned into action. We started the year with a call to action: Sheriffs, police chiefs, solicitors, victims’ advocacy groups, state law enforcement leaders, constitutional officers and members of the General Assembly called for domestic violence reform. In June, Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a comprehensive domestic violence reform bill that includes increased accountability for offenders, establishes community-based domestic violence coordinating councils and requires prevention education for middle school students.

The bill received bipartisan support, which speaks to its necessity, but its passage is only the first hurdle to be cleared. The focus must now be on consistent implementation if we are to stay on the road to meaningful change.

While it is never easy to host a Silent Witness ceremony, something will be different this year. We can seek comfort in the fact that we made a difference in South Carolina’s quest to end domestic violence. We know of no better way to honor those who have lost their lives to this tragic crime than passing meaningful reform that will save others.

Tuesday’s ceremony will not be the last time we mark the sad toll of domestic violence on S.C. families, but as we stand in remembrance, it will be important that we look toward the future. The success of efforts to end domestic and sexual violence depends on all members of the community taking a stand.

As individuals, we often feel powerless in the face of problems so overwhelming and ingrained in our culture, but if we all do our part, the load is shared and lightened for everyone.

Mr. Wilson is S.C. attorney general; Ms. Barber is executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Contact them at info@scag.gov or sbarber@sccadvasa.org.