Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Abuse Victims Face Barriers

July 7, 2003

Mary lives on a farm with her two children. She has just been knocked into the refrigerator by her husband, Joe (not their real names). This so-called "nice guy" and school board member is well connected in their small rural community.

Joe is now cleaning his gun on the kitchen table and giving her menacing looks. He keeps track of her every move. The sheriff is at least a half hour away, if he's not busy on other calls. The sheriff is a part of Joe’s network of friends.

Her one friend who knows her situation has told her many times that she should leave. Why doesn't she?

Here are some of the reasons why rural women, like Mary, encounter difficulties with the current system of care and protection.

- Poor access to the court system. Some rural counties don't have a judge available to issue a protection order. Many county attorneys have part time private practices. They often have a conflict of interest and hesitate to take sides if the batterer is a client in other legal matters.

- Domestic violence is downplayed. Unfortunately, some rural men in positions of authority - judges, county attorneys, sheriffs, court services personnel, doctors, ministers, social workers or school officials - have sexist attitudes. This contributes to decisions in which battered women are not taken seriously and are not protected. Any weak link in the chain can negate the kind of protection and help a women deserves.

- Rural politics gets in the way of justice. Abuse is not reported because the husband is well connected by relatives and friends in the community. A key decision-maker relationship with the batterer takes away the wife's hope that the right thing will be done. She might not be believed nor will she feel her husband's abuses will be taken seriously.

- Help is a long way away. Distances from timely law enforcement intervention contribute to the danger of reporting abuse. The isolation of the farm contributes to her feelings of helplessness when the batterer uses his control tactics to cut off her access to vehicles, telephones, friends and family. Her bruises may fade or heal before she sees a neighbor or friend.

- Hunting weapons and other firearms are immediately available. The presence of weapons may seem like ordinary, daily life - except to the woman who is being terrorized or abused. Courts need to drop their qualms about depriving men of these weapons when violence has occurred. Batterers also have access to axes, mauls, pitchforks and other tools that can be used as weapons.

- Court orders allow the man to come on the farmstead to farm while restricting him from contact with his wife. Little by little the perpetrator infringes on the court order until it is worthless. If he isn't allowed to farm, this is cutting off his and her livelihood. Sometimes the victim feels she has no choice but to leave, no matter what the hardship it causes her.

- A farm woman and her children may be totally dependent on farm income. The assets of the farm are often tied up in land and equipment. Her role on the farm may be critical to the success of the business. She faces the agonizing reality that if she leaves her husband he may lose the family farm and the means of making a living. Because of this, many farm women endure abuse for a long time before they decide not to live with terror and fear anymore.

- Shelters are far away. Rural women who have responsibility for children are often terrified and intimidated by having to go to "big cities" for help and protection. They must uproot themselves and their children from familiar surroundings to go to an unknown place with all friendships and familiar sources of support stripped away.

- Farm women have strong emotional attachments to land, and animals. Her husband's neglect or threatened harm to the animals may inhibit her leaving.

How to prevent domestic violence in rural communities?

Recognize abuse. Many rural communities deny that battering goes on in their midst and minimize its consequences. Male entitlement and privilege - a common attitude in rural communities - provide a rationale and high tolerance for abusers.

Be firm and consistent in response to abuse and violations of court orders. There should be immediate accountability through arrest and jail time. There should be zero tolerance for abuse by any person in the system or the community.

Abusive assaults aren't just physical or sexual. Emotional abuse through verbal abuse, putdowns, jealousy, possessiveness, restrictions, isolating tactics, threats and intimidation is as harmful as physical abuse.

Contrary to stereotype, abuse victims do leave. They often leave. In fact, women need protection and are in the greatest danger after they have left the relationship. Seventy-five percent of women murdered by their husbands or boyfriends have been killed after they have left.

Abuse is wrong. Abuse is not acceptable. Abuse is serious - deadly serious. Rural women deserve safety - just as do women everywhere.