The University Record, July 9, 1996

Coleman-Burns: Send a message about violence against women

Professional staff who deal with domestic violence gathered last week at a mini-conference that addressed issues of violence against women in different cultures, support for abused women and dependency issues.

Photo by Bob Kalmbach

Domestic violence is a social issue and a health issue, "not just a women's issue," Patricia Coleman-Burns told her audience at a mini-conference for professionals on the impact of domestic violence on the family. "It is a question of core cultural values."

Coleman-Burns gave the keynote address at the June 28 mini-conference sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC).

She said that many times people stand back and watch a man assaulting his partner because they assume that, if the couple is from another country, their society is one in which males dominate and the behavior is socially acceptable in that culture. Being sensitive to cultural diversity gives many bystanders an excuse not to interfere.

But those visiting the United States from other countries "do get information on what is acceptable behavior in the United States," she noted. "Somehow, they are getting the message that avoiding violence against women is not a high priority here." Visitors from other countries do not sell live chickens by the side of the road or hawk their wares on street corners, for instance, because they know that is not acceptable behavior here, she noted.

"Yet being an abuser is not a significant enough reason to keep people from being accepted as a professor, student or visitor here [at the U-M]," she said.

As a parallel to the issue of domestic violence, Coleman-Burns cited the change that the U-M and society in general have made with regard to cigarette smoking.

"When I was a student, there were smokers in every classroom. They would put out cigarettes on the floor in the lecture rooms. That behavior took 20 years to change," she added. "But it did change, and now smokers stand outside buildings huddled in small groups under awnings."

"We must send a clear message that violence will not be tolerated."

In sending that message, we must also be responsible for and prepared for "what will come after we take that stand," she said.

Counselors and law enforcement officers must be prepared to understand and deal with the cultural pressures that women face if they get that message and take the advice that counselors may provide on leaving a spouse who is violent. She cited a case where an international student was beaten by a partner and left home but subsequently faced an enormous amount of pressure from friends to return.

"Change must occur from within that person," Coleman-Burns said. "If we raise their consciousness, then women must have support when they stand up and speak out against their husbands. We must match the change that they make with a change in society."

Men also must get involved in a movement to end the silence on their part, she said. Too often men stand by and watch as women are abused without becoming involved is stopping it.

Coleman-Burns noted that there are tools that must be developed so that professionals can deal effectively with issues of violence:


a mechanism for reporting violent behavior against women


an understanding of the scope of family violence


interventions that work


knowledge of community resources


knowing what the legal issues are and what the law will do


deciding how long support should be offered and whether it is beneficial to allow an abused woman to become dependent on the support offered.

"We can't just abandon these people when they return to their own cultures," Coleman-Burns said. "We need to supply resources both here and when women return to their native countries. We can't just abandon either men or women who have made this change."

The conference also included panel presentations by Susan McGee, director of the Domestic Violence Project/SAFE House, on the impact of domestic violence on survivors; Sandra Graham-Berman, assistant professor of psychology, on the impact of domestic violence on children; Zahir Ahmed, director of the International Center, on immigration laws and how they relate to domestic violence; and Debra Cain, SAPAC director, on what works and does not work when police and administrators respond to batterers.