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February 2007
The Silent Witness
By Kymberlie Adams Matthews


They bestow a disheartening presence, these figures. Blood-red, life-size silhouettes, each bearing a shield with a victim’s name, age, date of death and story of how she was murdered…

In 1990, several women, distressed by the increasing number of women in Minnesota being murdered by their partners, joined forces with women’s organizations to form Arts Action Against Domestic Violence. Their goal: to speak out against domestic violence and find a way to memorialize the 26 women who had been murdered in Minnesota that year. According to Jennifer Stanley, a co-director of the Witness National Initiative, “The women decided to create 26 free-standing, life-size wooden figures, each bearing the name of a woman who once lived, worked, had neighbors, friends, family, children—whose life ended violently at the hands of a husband, ex-husband, partner, or acquaintance. They added a 27th figure to represent those uncounted women whose murders went unsolved or were erroneously ruled accidental. They called the figures the Silent Witnesses.”

In February of the following year, over 500 women formed a silent procession guiding the silhouettes into the Minnesota State Capitol Rotunda for a press conference. That day, the Silent Witness Exhibit was officially launched and a national initiative dedicated to the elimination of domestic murder began. Within one year over 800 Silent Witnesses, in 17 states, had been created.

When asked what effect the silhouettes have on people, Stanley stated, “Because they represent a life tragically taken at the hands of someone they once loved and trusted, this program affects people on many levels. The physical presence of the Silent Witnesses are a powerful visual reminder of tragic and senseless deaths. Wherever they have been displayed, the response has been dramatic and positive. Many people stop and ask questions, commenting on the impact the stories have had on them. Others are also shocked by the tragic, direct effect such violence has on children.” The Silent Witnesses are an important way to raise awareness of domestic and dating violence issues. They help create both educational opportunities as well as work toward establishing resources and legislation in an effort to end domestic violence homicides.

Currently, all 50 states and 24 countries are involved with Silent Witness Initiative projects. The Initiative’s goal is to “reach zero domestic murders by 2010 through community-based domestic violence reduction efforts.” According to the 2006 statistics published by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC), nearly 5.3 million incidents of intimate partner violence occur each year among U.S. women, ages 18 and older. In addition, the NCIPC reports that 1.5 million women are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner. But even more alarming are the low numbers of assaults that are actually reported: only 20 percent of intimate partner rapes or sexual assaults, 25 percent of physical assaults, and 50 percent of stalking directed at women are ever reported.

Jacqueline Skog, another co-director of the Witness National Initiative states, “At the root of domestic violence is the misuse of power and control, unregulated emotions resulting from hurt and pain from childhood abuse or neglect, family of origin learned and inherited traits, mental disorders and disrespect for the self and others. The culture of the U.S. has been primarily patriarchal giving men power over women and children. Think about it, up until 100 years ago, it was legal for a man to beat his wife.”

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