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Despite awareness efforts over the last 20 years, gender-based violence is a pandemic that has evolved to include not only families or intimate partners, but also strangers. An unprecedented number of women and girls are now subject to human trafficking, a multi-billion-dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to over 40 million people globally, even in Yellowstone County.

The average age of a trafficked girl is 15 years. Can you imagine such a life?

Montana statistics relating to domestic violence are just as staggering. From Jan. 10, 2000, to Jan 7, 2018, 187 deaths from intimate partner homicides, resulting from 124 incidents, were reported.

  • 45 percent of the incidents were homicide and suicide.
  • 10 percent were familicide with the entire immediate family killed.
  • 2 percent were attempted homicides with the perpetrator dying.
  • 43 percent were homicides.

Perpetrators were male in 70 percent of all incidents. Firearms were used in 72 percent of all homicides. In the U.S., women are 16 times more likely to be killed by guns than in other developed countries.

An analysis of mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 found 54 percent were committed by intimate partners or family. When a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, the risk of homicide for women increases by over 500 percent. Why are those convicted of intimate partner violence allowed to have guns? We know our Second Amendment rights, but what about the right to life? Who is speaking for these now silent witnesses?

What is to be done? Awareness is important. Treatment for victims and prosecution of perpetrators is also critical. However, the only long-term solution is prevention, which can only be achieved through education and culture change. We must teach the next generation that civility and respect is better than violence and contempt.

Abusers were often abused. Five million children are exposed to domestic abuse each year. We must take action to end the vicious circle. Small steps can go a long way to help children understand what is right and wrong. According to the White Ribbon project, most students were sent off to college without any discussion about what sexual consent means and that “no means no” under Montana law. A short conversation with junior high, high school or college students could help change the sexual assault crisis at our universities.

We must also change the teen “locker room talk” and help teens establish acceptable boundaries. Consider the example that we set. Do we use respect and civility when we disagree or do we trash talk others who anger or enrage us? Do we disagree on issues rather than projecting our disagreement onto other people? Do we teach non-violent coping skills?

Yellowstone County and the city of Billings have proclaimed the 16 days between Nov. 25 and Dec. 10 are the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Everyone is urged to support work to end gender violence and to eliminate the detrimental consequences it has on the wellbeing of all citizens.

How do our actions contribute to a society that tolerates abuse?

It may be surprising how many people watch what we do and emulate our actions, rather than what we say. Whether we are the postal worker, soccer coach, teacher, minister, waitress, judge or parent, we are setting an example for someone, youth and adult. Do we tolerate denigrating names in conversation – or do we ask that such terms not be used? Do we tolerate cat calls and sexual innuendoes, treating them as harmless, or do we stop to think about how our actions or inactions make others feel? Do we think about where a harmless joke stops and bullying begins?

Sexual violence and domestic abuse are costly and long-lasting for the victim and the perpetrator. It will not end overnight. It may not even end in our lifetimes. But, if we all make a conscious effort, we can stop the exponential growth in domestic violence. What better time to start than during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence?

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Billings attorney Reneé L. Coppock writes on behalf of Billings Zonta International, which works to empower women through service and advocacy.