Abuse, Interpersonal: II. Abuse Between Domestic Partners

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Common sense suggests that abuse between domestic partners is "just plain wrong." Nonetheless, domestic violence began to be recognized as an ethical issue only because of the advocacy work of grassroots battered-women's movements and of feminist and liberationist movements in theology, ethics, and the social sciences. This entry defines domestic violence, explores some of the reasons it is difficult for women to escape abuse, and outlines some of the underlying social and ethical issues.

Definition of Domestic Violence and Its Broader Social Context

The term domestic partners implies some serious bond, such as marriage, a child in common, cohabitation, or financial ties. It also usually implies emotional and sexual connections between people who have chosen to be with each other. Emotional, legal, and material connections make it difficult to end the relationship once abuse occurs. Police officers, lawmakers, medical professionals, and the general public have found it difficult to acknowledge the prevalence of domestic violence or act to prevent it because of the voluntary, emotional nature of a relationship based in the private rather than the public sphere and because of patriarchal assumptions about women and marriage.

In any intimate relationship people may hurt each other, but abuse occurs when one person systematically hurts, threatens, rapes, manipulates, tries to kill, or kills the other, and when fear replaces trust and respect as the basis of the relationship. Physical violence, with the intent of one spouse to cause harm to the other, is the accepted definition of spouse abuse in all countries where spouse abuse has been studied (Gelles and Cornell). Consistent insults, criticism, disregard for one partner's needs, isolation, damage to property and pets, and withholding money, food, or other necessities are other ways abusers try to dominate and control the relationship. The overwhelming majority of spousal abuse throughout the world is by men against women (Gelles and Cornell; Levinson), suggesting the pervasive influence of patriarchal family and social structures on abuse.

It is hard to document the extent of domestic abuse for several reasons. First, until recently, very few countries have kept records of it—violence has to be reported to some authority in order to be recorded (Gelles and Cornell). Many countries lack the bureaucratic infrastructure to maintain centralized records about domestic violence even if they desired to do so. Second, domestic violence incidents are consistently underreported, because of the shame of the abused, the desire to protect the abuser, and the failure of many agencies where women seek help to ask for and record many kinds of evidence of abuse. Third, the information kept (e.g., percentage of police calls related to family disputes, homicide statistics, number of women served by shelters, percentage of people reporting violence in surveys) varies widely. Research about domestic abuse against women tends to lag behind research about child abuse. Most research studies have analyzed family violence in a single country, using approaches that provide no basis for cross-cultural comparison (Gelles and Cornell).

Domestic violence is an international problem. The World Bank reports that gender-based violence accounts for as much death and ill-health in women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four as cancer, and more death and ill-health than malaria and car accidents combined (Venis and Horton). The World Health Organization (WHO) initiated a multi-country study on women's health and domestic violence in 1997 in response to the recommendation of an Expert Consultation on violence against women and the Beijing Platform for Action. Its objectives are to obtain reliable estimates of the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, to document the consequences of domestic violence on women's reproductive health, mental health, injuries, and general use of health services; to identify and compare risk and protective factors for domestic violence; and to identify strategies and services used by battered women. Research began in seven countries in 1999 and is expected to continue through 2002 (World Health Organization Multi-Country Study on Women's Health and Domestic Violence, Progress Report).

In the United States on average each year from 1992 to 1996 approximately 8 in 1,000 women and 1 in 1,000 men age twelve or older were violently victimized by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend (Henderson, 2000). In 1995, 26 percent of all female murder victims were slain by their husbands or boyfriends (FBI, 1996).

Despite the lack of statistical information and survey data, awareness of domestic abuse is increasing. In 1993 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and established a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women (U.S. Department of State). The UN designated November 25 as an International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1999. The U.S. Department of State highlighted the problem of rampant discrimination against women for the first time in 1993 in its annual report on human rights abuses. Examples cited included physical abuse against women in all countries; "honor killings" for alleged adultery by wives, especially in South America; denial in many countries of political, civil, or legal rights in voting, marriage, travel, testifying in court, inheriting and owning property, and obtaining custody of children; forced prostitution and the refusal to recognize marital rape as a crime on several continents; genital mutilation in many African countries; sexual and economic exploitation of domestic servants in Southeast Asia; and dowry deaths (murder of a bride when her family cannot give her husband's family the expected dowry) in Bangladesh and India. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 set federal guidelines for intervention, arrest, prosecution, and treatment of battered women in the United States.

The Psychological and Social Context of Domestic Abuse

The changes that occur in a battered woman's sense of self-esteem and competence are often more lasting and more damaging to the woman than the actual physical abuse. Battered women learn to pay attention to their partner's needs instead of their own in hopes of reducing the violence. They begin to distrust their own judgment and their own abilities to provide for themselves and their children (if they have children). They may eventually come to believe that they deserve the abuse they receive. When family, friends, religious leaders, police officers, and helping professionals disbelieve, blame, or trivialize battered women's experiences and do not respond to their appeals for help, women feel even more trapped and convinced that abuse is inevitable. Chances to escape abusive relationships or find a loving relationship begin to seem impossible (Moore).

Another psychological dynamic first described by Lenore E. Walker in her 1979 book, The Battered Woman, also helps to explain why it is so difficult for battered women to decide to leave an abusive relationship. Walker documented a three-part cycle of (1) a violent episode; (2) regret by the abuser, love, attention, reparation, and promises never to be abusive again (the "honeymoon period"); and (3) cessation of loving attention and a period of escalating tension between partners, leading to another violent episode. Battered women yearn for the honeymoon period of love and attention that reinforces their initial hopes for the relationship. Unfortunately, over time, the honeymoons become shorter and the severity and frequency of abuse increase, sometimes resulting in death. Walker also described the "learned help-lessness syndrome," where women lose faith in their ability to act effectively because batterers respond so unpredictably and illogically to so many of their actions.

The emotional, psychological, and physical consequences of abuse must be understood in their larger context of sexism, patriarchy, and paternalistic dominance (Lerner). Gerda Lerner defined sexism as "the ideology of male supremacy, of male superiority, and of beliefs that support and sustain it" (Lerner, p. 240). Sexism undergirds patriarchy, "the institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general" (Lerner, p.239). A sociological study of domestic abuse in Scotland documented the connection between domestic violence and patriarchal marriage. The researchers concluded that the law, the church, economic opportunities, appeals to science or to "the natural order," and social customs all promote women's subordinate status in marriage. Women find their struggle to resist domination, including violence, within marriage labeled "wrong, immoral, and a violation of the respect and loyalty a wife is supposed to give her husband" (Dobash and Dobash, p. ix). A study of ninety small-scale societies found that economic inequality, inequality of domestic decision-making authority, and restrictions on women's freedom to divorce were the strongest predictors of wife beating (Levinson). The major religious faiths have traditionally taught male superiority, the duty of women to obey men, and the sin of divorce even in the case of extreme abuse, which only exacerbates religious women's difficulties in escaping abuse.

Women's subordination is ostensibly mitigated by the unwritten contract for exchange of services in marriage, which Lerner called "paternalistic dominance": Men are expected to provide economic support and protection from harm in exchange for obedience, sexual service, and unpaid domestic service, including care of dependent family members (Lerner). These expectations are built into marriage and divorce laws (Weitzman) and help define women's roles, opportunities, and sense of self (Degler). The perception and public rhetoric that women's subordination is "normal," "necessary," and even desirable for women may contradict women's lived experiences. Yet without language and communities in which women may define their own experience, subordination often goes unchallenged.

In a 1990 article in the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Karen Lebacqz offered a powerful analysis of the role conditioning of men and women that contributes to domestic abuse in marital and nonmarital relationships. She argued that "'normal' patterns of male–female sexual relating in U.S. culture are defined by patterns of male dominance over women," so that women come to expect male domination and the possibility of violence in heterosexual relations (Lebacqz, p. 3). Many recent studies (Fortune; Against Her Will) find that women have often experienced undesired forced sexual relations with male acquaintances that neither women nor men considered to be rape. Male power over women is eroticized in mainstream media and pornography and comes to be perceived as sexually desirable, even when women know their experiences of abuse are not desirable (Lebacqz).

Expectations of male dominance in private heterosexual relations are reinforced by men's greater access to economic, political, religious, and cultural power in public life. In a 1992 contribution to the Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, Christine Firer Hinze analyzed how the creation and maintenance of distinct public and private realms tends to keep women dependent on male earning power and status. "A 'feminized' private realm confers indirect status and informal power in childbearing, homemaking, and other personalized nurturing, caretaking and consumption tasks … a separate, 'masculinized' public arena disperses public status and formal power in cultural, political, and economic matters" (Hinze, p. 283). Even within the public realm, women are most frequently employed in domestic service and in technical service and sales occupations with lower status and salaries than male-dominated occupations. In the United States, women of color are disproportionately represented in the lowest-paid positions in domestic service compared with white women (U.S. Department of Labor). Delores S. Williams, in her contribution to the 1994 book, Violence against Women, offered a nuanced analysis of violence in the United States against women of color. She insisted that the analytic context of violence against African-American women must include attention to three levels: (1) the national level, the history of national violence against African-American people; (2) the work level, including the violence African-American women experience working in the homes of white employers; and (3) the home level, violence experienced in their own homes. The differences between male and female access to power and between women of different ethnic groups become especially apparent when women who decide to leave abusive partners try to find adequate jobs, housing, medical care, child care, and education for their children.

Emerging Awareness of Domestic Violence as a Social and Clinical Problem

The understanding of the paterfamilias (male head of a household) with life and death control over wife (wives), children, slaves, and property is found in most every culture throughout the world: in ancient Greek and Roman society; in the Middle Eastern cultures represented in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scriptures; and in Confucian under-standings of the family, to name a few examples. Religious values have played an ambiguous role, sometimes perpetuating, sometimes condemning domestic abuse. For instance, trends in Christian history that attribute to women responsibility for the presence of evil in creation also sanctioned public torture and murder of women accused of being witches or heretics (Brown and Bohn; Fortune). Yet ideals in all religions, such as the intrinsic worth of all people in Christianity or of special obligations of husbands toward wives and vice versa in Christianity and Judaism, have also condemned domestic abuse. The emergence of religious and secular movements to prevent child abuse and violence against women could not occur until women and children began to be seen as individuals in their own right. In her 1999 book, Wounds of the Spirit, Traci West offered a model of how churches can support African-American women in their resistance to violence based on the obligation of congregations to be agents of healing in their families and communities.

The gradual shift in attention from silent acceptance of abuse to its recognition as a problem can be illustrated by examining the history of changing laws in the United States. Until the late nineteenth century, the assumptions underlying laws and social policy in the United States came from English common law, where the husband was considered the head of the house with absolute control over his wife and children. The term rule of thumb comes from a modification of English common law that gives husbands the right to beat wives "provided that he used a switch no bigger than his thumb" (Martin, p. 32). From 1874 until the 1970s, the prevailing U.S. court precedents held that although husbands do not have the legal right to chastise their wives, the courts should not interfere in domestic affairs except when permanent injury, malice, cruelty, or dangerous violence can be proven (Martin). In the 1970s, growing recognition of the severity of abuse against women, due largely to the "women's liberation movement," led most states to offer women legal protection against abuse by their husbands or by the fathers of their children. In many states, however, access to information about legal options, advocates to clarify procedures and support women, and affordable remedies are still hard to find.

The first battered women's shelters were established in the 1970s in England and the United States when women who had suffered abuse came to newly formed women's support groups asking for a place to stay (Schechter). In her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman described the interaction of consciousness-raising groups, increased public awareness, and changes in social policy and the treatment of female victims of rape and domestic violence by medical and psychological professionals in the United States, beginning in the 1970s. Public discussion of domestic violence gave its victims the language, the courage, and the end to isolation that enabled them to decide that abuse against them was wrong even when prevailing social norms had led them to accept abuse as normal and justifiable (Herman; Schechter; Russell).

"Why don't women just leave?" is a frequent query. Unlike children or the elderly, adult women are expected to be able to protect themselves, so women who "choose" to remain with an abuser are often blamed for their situation. Men and women are—in theory—peers in a relationship of mutual equality and need, although the reality of male privilege undermines genuine equality. The long-term effects of abuse by a chosen lover, the economic, social, and legal barriers faced by women living independently or with children, the fear of even greater violence or death for the woman or for other family members if she leaves, and the pressure on women to sustain intimate relationships with men reduce the options available to women who want abuse to end. These same factors also reduce battered women's ability to recognize and act on existing options. According to the National Clearinghouse on Domestic Violence, more than 79 percent of all violent attacks occur after a woman leaves her abuser.

Legislative Issues

Increasing awareness of the extent and severity of violence against women in the United States led to the passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994. This act made orders of protection enforceable, recommended mandatory arrest laws, and granted federal money for battered women's shelters and legal services. It also allowed battered women who were not legal residents to petition for immigration privileges without the help of their abusive spouse. Twenty-nine states recognize domestic violence as a factor in custody disputes, and "battered women's defense" is legally recognized under federal and state law. Mandatory arrest policies have become central to most states' strategies to protect women, punish offenders, deter future violence and convey the new social norm that battering is wrong (Sontag). Perhaps in partial response, the number of violent victimizations of women by an intimate partner declined from 1993 to 1996, from 1.1 million reported incidents to 840,000 incidents (Greenfield et al.).

Yet some people are beginning to question the effectiveness of mandatory arrest policies because they undermine women's right to self-determination, their complicity in the violence, and their ability to negotiate safety for themselves and their children without police intervention (Mills). Is a male-dominated and racially biased judicial system revictimizing women by forcing them to share intimate and often shameful accounts of their lives in front of court authorities and to subject the men they still love to a legal system whose racial and economic fairness they question? Mandatory arrest policies also disproportionately affect low-income batterers, perhaps because more affluent batterers and victims have more access to private lawyers, doctors, escape places, and treatment options before the police are called. In their 1997 report, Preventing Crime, Lawrence W. Sherman and colleagues found a correlation between men's social status and increased violence: Arrests seem to deter employed men but make unemployed men more violent. Advocates for battered women counter that though the laws are imperfect they are at present the best way to protect battered women and ensure that domestic violence is treated as the crime that it is.

Medical Care

Questions about the possibility of domestic violence should be part of all regular medical histories for all women in all settings where women come for medical care. Domestic violence affects women of all economic groups, educational levels, ethnic groups, religions, and ages. Routinely asking about violence and childhood sexual abuse may help abused women recognize that they are not alone and that help is available. Questions should be posed so that they do not impute blame to women. Women who are abused may well deny their abuse out of fear, shame, or distrust. This is far more likely when their partners accompany them to doctors' offices or emergency rooms: Women need to be asked about abuse when they are alone, or at least when their partners are not able to hear their responses. Information about resources for battered women should be prominently displayed and easily available for women to take without their asking.

Battered women who have left their abusers are also likely to return more than once before they are ready to leave permanently. This can be frustrating to medical professionals who treat a particular woman's injuries repeatedly and can lead them to blame the woman, who needs to take her own time to decide how she can live in safety. Accurate medical records, including clinical reasons for suspecting abuse, are essential evidence for women who may eventually press criminal or civil charges against their abusers. Suspicious bruises should be noted on medical charts for an accurate history and evidence for possible future use. No laws require reporting suspected abuse against women (whereas there are such laws for suspected child abuse), because women are not "dependent." Nonetheless, if medical professionals incorporate questions and information about domestic violence into their routine treatment of women, they will address some of the social barriers that keep battered women from finding safety.

Ignorance about domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse also plagues psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and clergy who do not understand the emotional or material barriers that make leaving difficult. Often, they either blame women for remaining in dangerous relationships or they consistently ignore signs of abuse and refuse to pay serious attention to women who talk about abuse. Couples therapy often tries to assign responsibility for problems equally to each partner in the relationship, which ignores the reality of violence and the fear of the abuser that makes abusive relationships inherently unequal. Attributing responsibility for the violence to the offender, and specific treatment for the batterer in individual therapy or groups, is essential if abuse is to end. Fear of retaliation by the abuser can also prevent counseling professionals from intervening in situations of domestic abuse.

Treatment resources for male abusers are still scarce. Most abusers deny they have a problem. Most batterers participate in treatment groups for batterers only when they are ordered to do so by a judicial authority. Inconsistent prosecution, enforcement, and sentencing often reinforce abusers' beliefs that their abuse is not a serious problem. Mandated treatment programs are often predominantly attended by low-income men, men on welfare, or men with prior criminal records. They are likely to conclude that learning to avoid arrest is more important than changing their abusive behaviors. Treatment programs take several different approaches: Some are primarily didactic (designed to teach), some use cognitive and behavioral approaches, and some include attention to a batterer's psychological history and psychodynamic issues and the circumstances of the abuse. There is no definitive study that has proved the effectiveness of any treatment approach (see Sherman et al.).


Ethical issues raised by abuse between domestic partners fall into categories of treatment and prevention. Treatment includes breaking the silence that surrounds domestic violence; holding abusers legally accountable for their actions and requiring them to cease their violence; listening to victims; helping victims recognize their strengths and believe they are worthy to live in safety; and helping victims navigate through social, economic, legal, and religious barriers to safety (Ni Carthy). The balance between active intervention to keep women from being hurt or killed, and respecting their need to decide how and when to end an abusive relationship, is difficult to find.

Nuancing the caricature of completely violent man and wholly submissive victimized woman is also essential in prevention, treatment, and ethical analysis. Unpacking the complicated dynamics of love, anger, and violence in particular relationships may reduce incidences of violence in those relationships. Some men are battered by women, and abuse occurs in same-sex relationships. Yet it is vital to remember the context of unequal power within which men and women learn to love, fight, attack, and seek safety. No woman will be safe until social, political, and economic institutions ensure her access to the material resources she needs to support herself and her children.

Laws alone are not enough, in the United States or any other country, to prevent abuse. In Bangladesh, a nation with very strong laws against battering, violence against women continues to rise sharply (Venis and Horton). Prevention includes challenging the prevailing social norms of sexism and patriarchy, the cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity, and the assumption that violence is a legitimate way of resolving conflict between people or groups of people. Broad economic and educational empowerment of women is ultimately the only way to end violence against women.

allison w. moore (1995)

revised by allison w. moore

laura a. russell

SEE ALSO: Family and Family Medicine; Feminism; Harm; Human Rights; Sexual Ethics; Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Abuse, Interpersonal subentries


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