In the carpeted, curtained splendor of a National Harbor hotel ballroom, a Nigerian social worker described the life of the abused women in her village, how they work and fish and trade at the market, “but the men take all the money from them.”
Plates clinked in the background while the buffet was being set up, and a woman from Kenya took the microphone and described the night that police arrived at her home to find her beaten and bruised by her husband. “Can’t you two just work it out among yourselves?” the officer asked, before leaving.
And so the horrors unfolded, even as the Caprese salad was served.
The saddest thing about this hotel conference scene?
“All across the globe, our stories are the same,” said Berline Vaita, the Kenyan abuse survivor who was attending the World Conference of Women’s Shelters at National Harbor on Monday.
I went there to see the amazing array of front-line advocates, thousands of women from Ecuador, Mexico, Nepal, Denmark and at least 90 other countries who are here for a four-day conference that only happens once every four years.
I braced myself to hear the flesh-and-blood stories behind the staggering worldwide statistics on domestic violence, affecting about 1 billion women who have been “beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused by an intimate partner,” according to the D.C.-based National Network to End Domestic Violence, which organized this year’s event.
But abuse isn’t limited to villages and foreign countries. The folks at the conference did some eye-bugging when they heard about the way a bad suburban divorce in the United States can turn into a living hell when an abuser has technology on his side.
Over in Ballroom B, we were treated to the frightening array of apps, devices and programs that counselors and shelter advocates have seen abusers use to control and track women.
Women running from their abusers have had their cars unable to start, lock automatically or sped up thanks to a remote device marketed as a way to restrict a teen’s car use. They have seen men tuck dog collars meant to track a stray hound into a woman’s car and then hunt her like prey, following the collar’s GPS signal meant for Rover.
They have seen him hack her computer, geo-tag her phone and hide recorders in her car.
Remember all those vicious e-mails and texts between University of Virginia lacrosse players Yeardley Love and George Huguely V that helped the jury reach their second-degree murder verdict? There is an app popular among abusers that instantly erases all communication, so you’ve got nothing in court.
“Are you freaked out yet?” asked Erica Olsen, the tech specialist for the group putting on the conference.
The domestic violence stats for just one day in the United States are frightening. The national network did a statistical snapshot for domestic violence in just one day — Sept. 15, 2011.
On that Thursday, 67,399 women and children reported domestic violence, including 614 in the District, 866 in Maryland and 1,304 in Virginia.
Most of those cases never make the news. And when they do — a la Rihanna and Chris Brown — folks don’t always side with the victim, no matter how bruised she is. Yet we’re quick to let the abuser keep right on singing.
I sat down with the president of the network and co-founder of the global conference, Sue Else, to talk about the status of women worldwide.
When we hear stories of Afghan women made to marry their rapists or Iranian women being stoned to death, or see an Oscar go to a film about the Pakistani women disfigured from acid attacks by men, we can sit back and be grateful we are women in the United States. We live in a place where our government doesn’t try to control women.
“Ha!” Else and I both laughed.
At that moment, the male-dominated Virginia legislature was deciding on a bill to require ultrasounds before an abortion, although an uproar among women had prompted them to back off from mandating invasive transvaginal ultrasounds. Elsewhere in the country, contraception access is being debated.
Some of this legislation is its own form of control and abuse. It is no different than taking away the money those Nigerian women work so hard to earn or shutting down the car engine of a woman trying to drive home safely.
Overseas, the fight against domestic violence will take decades to win. But women all over the world are beginning to speak out about it, to demand their rights, sometimes at great risk to their safety.
The advocates coming here aren’t finding all the answers in America. But we are showing the world the power of our voices.
And that a good start.
To read previous columns by Petula Dvorak, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.