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Alaska's women suffer 'astonishingly high' rates of abuse

Jill Burke

More than half of the women in Alaska are likely to either be abused by a spouse or lover or suffer sexual assault within their lifetime, according to a new study.

A new university study appears to debunk theories that Alaska's rates of violence against women are higher here than elsewhere because women do a better job reporting crimes against them. Over the years, as Alaska has studied and quantified the hurt and suffering that women experience, it has been hard to know whether the high numbers are due to high rates of victimization, high rates of reporting, or both.

The University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, in connection with the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, recently tried to get a handle on that issue, and the news -- presented Monday to the Alaska Senate Judiciary and Health committees -- isn't good.

The numbers are "astonishingly high," the Justice Center's Andre Rosay told lawmakers. Nearly 60 percent of women in Alaska are likely to suffer "intimate partner of sexual violence" within their lifetime. Of those, one in 10 is likely to experience violence from a partner. One in four is likely to be sexually abused. Over the last year, more than 29,000 women in Alaska likely experienced violence from a spouse or partner; more than 10,600 likely suffered some form of sexual abuse.

Data for the 2010 Alaska Victimization Survey, first published in September 2010, was gathered by randomly calling 871 adult women, ranging in age from 18 to over 80. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, surveyors asked women more general health questions before getting into graphic questions pertaining to intimate partner violence and sexual abuse. "It was a very complicated and difficult survey," Dr. Rosay explained. "You can't just call people randomly on the phone and ask if they've ever been raped."

There's a good chance even more women have been victimized than the study's estimates indicate. Women not included in the survey included those who didn't speak English, didn't have phones or who were homeless, staying in shelters or in hospitals, or who were in prison. It's thought that rates of abuse and violence may be higher among the excluded groups, and researchers suspect the continued stigma of talking about sexual violence may also cause cases to go unreported.

Estimates may also vary by community, as the study looked solely at a statewide average rather than region by region, an aspect of the study researchers intend to develop in the coming year.

Sen. Hollis French, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, commented that while the state appears to be doing a good job in prosecuting cases once a defendant is charged, gaps remain in initial stages of investigation, when evidence must be collected through "police and nursing work" that can be used to build cases.

In Dr. Rosay's opinion, one of the biggest hurdles is getting victims of abuse to come forward. "The underreporting rate is significantly higher than we thought," he said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com