The rural setting for domestic violence can be a stark contrast to its large-city counterpart. For instance, in the 70,665 square miles of North Dakota live just over 600,000 people, among the lakes, forests, rivers, wooded bluffs, and prairies—fewer people spread across that much territory than reside in Chicago alone. Rural areas may differ from one another in geography, economics, demographics, and even culture. Rural life itself is not homogeneous across the United States, but there are certain characteristics and issues which are often found in rural areas.
For instance, there are typically few police officers to respond to calls, and there may be limited access to telephones or emergency services. The geography of rural areas may pose a significant hurdle to victims of domestic violence. The response time and speed with which support services may be provided in an emergency may vary greatly, and the typically lengthy response time may increase the lethality of certain forms of violence. In large cities about 27 percent of residents own a firearm, but in rural areas over 75 percent of citizens are gun owners. Additionally, a more accepting attitude toward ownership of weapons is common in rural communities. Hunting weapons are common, and domestic violence victims are often threatened with them. The increased availability of weapons in rural households increases both the likelihood and the lethality of domestic violence attacks on rural victims.
Rural women face many challenges when dealing with domestic violence, and few statistical studies of rural domestic violence exist. Often the significant problems of domestic violence victims are exacerbated by a variety of rural factors which may decrease access to resources and make it more difficult for victims to escape abusive relationships. Economic conditions in rural communities may pose obstacles to domestic violence victims, as many rural areas suffer from high and enduring levels of poverty. The eroding economic base in these communities makes it difficult to offer appropriate services and shelters to victims in the area and makes securing adequate employment quite difficult for victims trying to succeed on their own.
A strong allegiance to the land may discourage victims from leaving and losing a large part of their identity. Additionally, support for traditional gender roles may leave victims with a perception of few options and a risk of losing the support of family and friends if they attempt to question or leave the boundaries of expected role behavior. Rural living may make access to advanced education, job opportunities, and even adequate child care very difficult, thus increasing the victim’s reliance on the batterer.
While rural culture cannot be precisely described, it often has several features which have implications for domestic violence victims in these areas. One common feature of rural culture is the influence of informal control. Social bonding is emphasized, structural conditions tend to foster conformity among the youth, and rural areas are often less tolerant of crime and deviance in general. The informal control is strengthened by the stability of the local population, with the same house or land staying within a family for generations. The resultant ‘‘density of acquaintanceship’’ can make it difficult for the victim of domestic violence to come forward and believe that her anonymity will be preserved.
With a greater reliance on informal social control in many rural areas, there can be less use of or need for governmental control, which can even lead to a mistrust of government. This mistrust of government can influence rural victims to be hesitant to seek help from welfare, housing, employment, or other government-sponsored programs. Even service providers without a link to government may be viewed with skepticism if they seem insensitive to local needs. This mistrust may even make victims hesitant to report abuse to law enforcement officials.
While some rural areas have experienced economic growth and development, there often tends to be an out-migration of the youth, leaving family relationships and support networks strained and thus further isolating many victims. Batterers characteristically seek to isolate their victims anyway, and the moving away of family members (who may have been mediators in the home) can cause an isolation in rural areas that is extremely severe, as victims may literally be miles from the nearest friend or family member and have no public transportation available. There may be no telephones, and in some cases 911 services are lacking. To make matters worse, for those who can use a phone, there may be long distance charges for calling other communities that may be only a few miles away, making it difficult for victims to remain in contact with family and friends, and, in addition to the cost, long-distance charges are often monitored by the abusers. A victim may be alone with the abuser for several months over the winter if employment is seasonal. Alcohol use may increase during these periods of isolation and unemployment, fueling an already volatile situation.
A lack of anonymity and confidentiality in small towns and rural areas may make it more difficult to confide in the law enforcement officer or judge, who knows everyone socially and may even be related to the offender and therefore less likely to recognize the severity of the abuse. In addition to shortages of health care providers and underinsurance or lack of health insurance, rural health care providers may be acquainted with or even related to the abuser, thus creating a barrier to disclosing the abuse and further isolating the victim.
In relation to race, most rural areas tend to be quite homogeneous; most minority groups in rural areas tend to be underrepresented, and an importance is not placed on providing needed services to the victims who are members of minority groups. Native American victims living on reservations face many of the same issues as rural victims. Native Americans are the only minority group which is more routinely represented in rural areas than in central cities, though culturally relevant services for Native American victims are still typically absent.
Domestic violence is as frequent in rural areas as in cities. There are many difficulties faced by victims in rural areas in addition to the typical difficulties of victims no matter where they reside. There are also many unanswered questions which are deserving of future study, such as, How do the detection of and response to domestic violence differ in rural areas and what are the main problems of service delivery to battered women in rural areas? A better understanding of minority-group concerns and the complexities of domestic violence among Native Americans are also appropriate issues for further study and attention.
When discussing issues surrounding domestic violence and why victims may not leave an abusive situation, it is important to look at the particular realities of rural life:
Rural victims may not have access to a vehicle or even have a driver’s license, so traveling to town to report a crime or to seek medical attention may not seem practical. Road conditions during winter may prohibit travel, especially on back roads where snow removal may be intermittent or completely lacking.
Nowhere to Go
Rural victims may not have access to a shelter, or the nearest one may be more than an hour away. Going to a shelter means uprooting children from school and extended family, and such a move takes advance planning. It cannot be a spontaneous response.
Many rural victims have never lived anywhere else, and leaving the security of other family members to escape the actions of one is a frightening prospect.
Many victims are business partners in farming or ranching operations. To leave the farm can be emotionally difficult and may mean giving up their only source of income and abandoning significant investments.
Generational Effects of Domestic Violence
Isolation can be pronounced in rural areas, and the family may be a closed unit. If victims grew up witnessing domestic violence, they may see domestic violence as normal.
Shortage of Resources
There is a lack of support services in rural areas to assist victims in leaving. If they are available, there may be a lack of public awareness as to how to access them. Consider that there may not even be 911 services. There are few, if any, programs for batterers in rural areas.
Rather than incarcerating batterers and sending the abused to shelters, rural communities may benefit from integrating discussions of and services for victims and batterers into their community settings. Batterer programs may be viewed as better options than incarceration of the batterer or having the victim leave the farm or ranch, so long as the victim’s safety is ensured. Service providers sensitive to the needs of rural communities need to build trust with the communities and understand how financial and cultural issues have impacted that group over time and how strengths within the rural communities can be used to facilitate change and encourage a reduction in domestic violence.
- The Rural Womyn Zone website. http://www.ruralwomyn.net/ (accessed August 24, 2014).
- Weisheit, Ralph A., David N. Falcone, and L. Edward Wells. Crime and Policing in Rural and Small-Town America, 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1999.