Sexual Assault Protest

LSU student body vice president Hannah Barrios stands with a protest sign on Friday, Nov. 20 at Pete Maravich Assembly Center on N Stadium Dr.

For a decade now, Louisiana has held the unfortunate distinction of having one of the highest rates of women murdered by men — known as femicide — in the nation. 

The state ranked second in the U.S. in 2019, with femicide rates over twice the national average. The following year brought slight improvements, moving Louisiana down to the fifth spot but maintaining a rate 77% higher than the national average.

For several years prior to 2020, the state's increasing femicide rate outpaced the overall national upward trend. It has also disproportionately impacted Black women, who made up 63% of all femicide victims in Louisiana in 2018. 

“These numbers point to a crisis in our state. Women are being murdered at sky-high rates, in most cases by current or former intimate partners,” said Executive Director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence Mariah Wineski

Femicide is often the culmination of years of abuse, meaning it is necessary to understand domestic violence in Louisiana more broadly to get the full scope of the epidemic. The majority of these crimes are committed by victims' former or current intimate partners. 

Thousands of cases of domestic violence are reported each year in Louisiana, though it's difficult to know how many more instances go unreported. At the end of 2019, Louisiana had almost 35,000 reports of misdemeanor domestic violence and over 3,000 active protective orders in the national registry. 

There are several factors that may be contributing to the alarmingly high rates of domestic violence and femicide in Louisiana.

First, the state directs far too little money toward helping domestic violence victims, meaning people experiencing those situations often have to turn to nonprofits for counseling and other services.

Although these organizations do great work, this often leaves deserts of resources for victims. Only 13 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes contain centers for assisting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other related crimes. Inadequate transportation systems leave victims in rural areas with few options.

It is gut-wrenching that there are people in this state trapped in abusive situations because our government has failed to provide them with the necessary resources to escape. 

Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the state diverted $200,000 away from the Governor’s Office on Women’s Policy budget, which primarily funds domestic violence services. The move appeared to signal an underlying belief among officials that such services are nonessential.

One cannot help but wonder: How many of these deaths could have been avoided if we had done more to help these victims?

If the Louisiana government seeks to actually address the issue at hand, its budget must reflect that desire. Until then, it remains clear that fighting domestic violence against women is simply not a high enough priority for the state.

Inadequacies in the criminal justice system may also be partially to blame. Wineski explains that, in many communities, "...criminal justice practices still fail to hold abusers accountable before homicide occurs.”

By allowing domestic violence to go unchecked, the criminal justice system leaves abuse victims vulnerable and creates opportunities for circumstances to escalate drastically. 

It is significant to note that two-thirds of Louisiana femicides in 2018 were committed with a firearm. Many activists point to Louisiana’s lax gun laws as a contributing factor to Louisiana’s high rates of femicide. Increased restrictions on convicted abusers owning guns, universal background checks and closing gun purchasing loopholes could all help prevent firearm violence in the future.

Economic opportunity is also an important factor in domestic violence.

Louisiana consistently ranks as one of the poorest states in the nation, with almost 20% of residents living in poverty. Lack of economic opportunity can be a significant factor keeping people — most often women — in unsafe relationships. Abused women often fear that leaving their partners may cause increased financial pain for them or their children, leaving many to believe suffering in silence is the preferable option.

It is estimated that, nation-wide, almost half of all homeless women and children are fleeing domestic violence.

Having to choose between an abusive home and no home at all is a decision no one should ever have to make, especially in a country with more than enough resources to prevent such a dilemma. 

It’s surprising how rarely these statistics have permeated the public dialogue in Louisiana. Perhaps even more troubling to witness is the ways our own University represents a microcosm of these chronic, state-wide issues, particularly when it comes to preventing and prosecuting violence against women. 

A recent crime report showed that in the past three years, the University has had 56 reports of sex offenses, 17 reports of fondling, 28 reports of dating violence, 18 reports of domestic violence and 69 reports of stalking.

It is important to stress that these only represent the number of reported crimes. Incidents of sexual assault and domestic violence are incredibly underreported, so these statistics may not even be truly representative of the scope of this issue on campus.

The frequency of these crimes is especially concerning in the context of the 2020 USA Today investigation that revealed the University’s repeated mishandling of sexual assault allegations. 

Included in this article were many disturbing findings that demonstrated the University’s failure to protect survivors of sexual assault and dating violence. 

The report suggests that several administrators at the University were aware of instances of abuse or assault and failed to report them. By doing so, these administrators created the potential for continued violence, putting the survivors in danger on their own college campus.

One woman reported that the University placed her in a class with her abuser — and told her she would have to change her own schedule if she was uncomfortable. Other women reported officials in the Title IX office dismissed their concerns and took months to launch investigations. Some were even asked to contact their own abusers in the process. 

The University has made it abundantly clear that its goal is not to protect survivors but to save its own reputation and financial interests. In this way, the University acts much like the state-at-large; doing the bare minimum to protect survivors, while those in power simply look the other way. 

While the factors that contribute to these problems on campus and in this state are numerous and complex, it ultimately comes down to the fact that these institutions fundamentally undervalue the well-being of survivors, who are primarily women.

The University and state government have been able to get away with these failures for so long for the simple fact that they are not built to serve the interests or concerns of women — especially not those living in poverty, who are disproportionately victimized by these crimes. 

To fix these issues, we must first fix our priorities. And it is far past time we finally do so.

Claire Sullivan is an 18-year-old coastal environmental science freshman from Southbury, CT.

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