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COMMENTARY | Jeneé OSTERHELDT

Cyntoia Brown will be free. But the country remains locked in a culture of violence

Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking victim, has been imprisoned since was 16. On Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown.
Cyntoia Brown, a sex-trafficking victim, has been imprisoned since was 16. On Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown.(Lacy Atkins/The Tennessean via Associated Press/Pool/File 2018)

Cyntoia Brown will finally be free. But is she coming home to a country locked in a cycle of violence against women and girls?

Brown, a sex-trafficking victim, has been imprisoned since was 16. She killed a 43-year-old man who picked her up, a man she thought was going to hurt her. She’d already been raped, drugged, and trafficked by a pimp named “Cut-throat.” And she was sentenced to life.

On Monday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam granted clemency to Brown. Now 30, she will be released on Aug. 7, having served 15 years of a sentence that originally required her to serve at least 51.

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Brown thanked the governor, saying, “I will do everything I can to justify your faith in me.”

Are we doing everything we can to end the cycle that allows a 16-year-old trafficking victim to be criminalized, or rape culture that supports R. Kelly? There is no justification for that.

Last week, Lifetime aired “Surviving R. Kelly,” a six-hour docuseries, detailing the horrifying abuses his alleged victims — most of them underaged black girls — have endured.

For the first episode, 1.9 million viewers tuned in Thursday. Yet he maintains more than 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and the service says streams of his music surged 16 percent that day.

A spokesperson from RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told The Daily Beast The National Sexual Assault Hotline on Thursday received 27 percent more calls.

Many of the women interviewed for the docuseries shared stories riddled with abuse. He allegedly slapped and starved them, controlled and isolated them.

This is the kind of behavior that often leads to murder.

According to a recent global study by the United Nations, about six women are killed every hour by someone they know — 30,000 women killed in 2017 were killed by an intimate partner.

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In Massachusetts, there were 14 women, as young as 20 and as old as 79, murdered in domestic violence tragedies in 2018.

Ersilia Cataldo Matarazzo, 50, of Everett was the last local domestic violence homicide of 2018. The beloved church secretary and member of the Everett Board of Assessors was killed, allegedly by her estranged husband, on Dec. 19, just days after her birthday and days before the Violence Against Women Act expired and the government shut down.

With the shutdown and the expiration, survivors fleeing danger are even more vulnerable.

The Violence Against Women Act, created in 1994, helps support survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. It led to the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice, and helps fund domestic violence and sexual assault programs.

What happened to Matarazzo is a reflection of a violent culture.

On Sept. 13, 2017, domestic violence programs nationwide participated in the National Network to End Domestic Violence National Census of Domestic Violence Services. The report tracks program activity for the same 24-hour period. In one day, 72,245 victims were served. In Massachusetts, there were 596 hotline calls and 1,760 victims served during that period.

We don’t have a few tragedies here and there. We have an epidemic.

“There is a scourge of violence against women that permeates all corners of our society,” says Sonia Pérez-Villanueva, associate professor of Spanish studies and cofounder and cochair of the Violence Against Women Initiative at Lesley University. “We are bombarded with images, messages, and voices that undermine respect among people but most acutely among ethnicities and among genders.

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“This issue concerns a culture of violence, and it is a culture that exists in our elite prep schools, our work places, our homes, in every community of every color and creed. It is an epidemic that requires attention, teaching, and resources. When are the leaders of this country going to pay attention?”

Are we tuned in? Over the past three weeks, we’ve seen a number of domestic violence crimes.

On Christmas Eve, Korey Franklin allegedly shot his wife after an argument. The Boston police officer at first claimed she shot herself. He was charged with assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and misleading an investigator. And released on personal recognizance.

A few days later, on Dec. 27, a woman went on a Tinder date and was repeatedly stabbed by her date in his Cohasset home. The victim is recovering.

That same day, a video surfaced showing a man and woman arguing in Saugus. Lisbet Flores, 20, was seen allegedly grabbing a gun from the man, pointing it at him and shooting. She missed.

She has been charged with armed assault to murder and is being held without bail. He was charged with carrying a firearm without a license, a subsequent offense.

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The details are still unfolding, and domestic violence can go both ways. Still, one wonders what might have happened to her had she not taken the gun from him.

Numbers don’t lie. According to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, more than one in four women and more than one in seven men in America have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner. A 2015 National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report found 20 percent of the LGBTQ community has experienced intimate partner violence, making LGBTQ protections under VAWA vital.

Statistically speaking, we all know a victim or are a victim. We can’t afford a government shutdown. We can’t afford not to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act. Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault use a lot of government programs — from transitional housing to WIC.

Even when the government is open for business and VAWA is active, funding isn’t always there.

In 2017, the National Census of Domestic Violence Services report found 11,441 requests couldn’t be filled on Sept. 13, 2017. Victims went without lawyers, shelter, and help. In Massachusetts, that meant 298 unmet requests.

We’re less than three weeks into the government shutdown. Debra J. Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, says funding hasn’t come to an immediate halt for many domestic violence programs in the area.

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Not yet. But as the days pass, people are further put at risk. Of course, programs and funding, while critical, aren’t the lone answers to our problem.

“Culture is a hard thing to change,” Robbin says. “We have a cultural norm of entitlement and privilege, and misogyny is socially accepted. There is so much money and ego attached to it. We are in a conflict of values, conflict of oppression, suppression.”

When you see Brett Kavanaugh and R. Kelly succeed in spite of the pain they’ve caused, it makes you question what our country stands for, and who it stands for.

Robbin says we have to put in the work to see the change — through our vote, donations, volunteering, inclusion, and awareness.

“We have to have the conversations in our homes, at the workplace, with our family and friends,” she says. “This is also about education and teachable moments. We can’t fight violence against women without fighting racism. They are connected. We need to create a reality where all survivors — women, men, girls, boys, the LGBTQ community — have safe spaces to talk and foster not retribution but healing.”

Cyntoia Brown will be free. But when it comes to rape culture, we all need a revolution.

Clarification: This story has been updated to more accurately describe the circumstances that led to the imprisonment of Cyntoia Brown.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.