Ask an Expert: Intimate Partner Violence with Dabney P. Evans

November 1, 2023
Dabney Evans, thought leader on intimate partner violence and femicide


By Karina Antenucci 

One in three women will experience physical, sexual, or psychological violence in their lifetimes. This is true both in the U.S. and around the world. According to the World Health Organization, around 736 million women worldwide are victims of this violence, a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade.

“This is a constant problem that needs attention,” says Dabney P. Evans, PhD, associate professor of global health and executive director of the Emory University Institute of Human Rights.

Evans is currently conducting local and global research related to intimate partner violence and femicide (the gender-based killing of women or girls) where the perpetrator is a man and the survivor or victim identifies as a woman. Here, she discusses these projects, what is vital for policymakers to do, and how we can all contribute to a safer future.

How can we help those in danger of intimate partner violence?

First, we need to protect people’s safety, and they are the best judge of that. They know their partners and the situation they’re in with children, jobs, and housing. We have to respect their autonomy to make the best choices for their own lives. In the U.S., we have resources available, such as the myPlan app (a safety decision aid) and the Danger Assessment (an online tool to assess the risk of being killed by one’s partner). In a calmer moment or when making decisions, survivors can explore those resources and talk to their social networks. In Atlanta, we have a robust community of agencies to help, including the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

What local research are you conducting related to intimate partner violence?

Here in Atlanta, we are working on two related studies at Grady Hospital that have just begun in September. We are focusing on the gap in care connections for people experiencing violence who may go to the hospital for injuries but may also need to connect with social services outside of the hospital. One version of the study being conducted through the Injury Prevention Research Center at Emory (IPRCE) focuses on the experiences of people of color as well as survivors who identify as LGBQTIA+ or who have a disability. Another version of the study focuses on the general population. We are trying to determine the positive factors that make the connections to social services more likely.

Tell me more about your current work around relationship violence.

In collaboration with a national domestic violence organization in Brazil, we are in the testing phase of a safety planning app for Brazilian women to help prevent intimate partner violence and femicide. A lot of times violence is normalized in relationships and one of the intentions of this app is to sensitize the victims to it. The app helps them think about their own circumstances and plan ahead, such as keeping a change of clothes at a friend’s house or making copies of important documents. It also includes the Danger Assessment-Brazil, the Portuguese version of the tool of 20 things that tell women what their risk is of being murdered by a current or former partner.

A great feature of the app is that it includes Google Maps with overlaid local resources specific to domestic violence. We have pinned specialized police departments, health clinics, and agencies so women can see the closest thing to them on the map. To develop, refine, and test the app, our preliminary work has included in-depth interviews with survivors and focus group discussions with the professionals that serve them.

One of your lines of research focuses on men convicted of femicide. Are there any findings can you share?

We have done 166 interviews with 89 men from 11 countries who have killed their partners. Some of our preliminary analyses have looked at the perpetrators’ narratives for how they explain their behavior and where they place the blame, as well as their adverse childhood experiences, which are not excuses for their crimes but ways to help explain them.

Our goal with this research is prevention—getting inside men’s brains to interrupt future violence before it happens.Abandonment is one major theme we’re seeing. Being abandoned by parents or feeling abandoned by parents who separated tie into attachment theory that speaks to how people form healthy relationships including boundaries as they are developing. Many perpetrators have significant trauma. This is important to understand. How is the trauma and abuse experienced by the little boys of today going to show up later in life— and most importantly how can we interrupt that harmful cycle?

How can we all contribute to breaking the femicide cycle?

Violence within our culture harms not only women and girls that are survivors but hurts people of all genders. On a day-to-day basis, we can encourage more fluidity in gender norms. For instance, a rigid gender norm is “boys don’t cry.” Instead, let all children express emotions and say how they feel. Talk to them about how to process those feelings and to understand that violence is harmful.

What should policymakers do to help survivors?

The number one thing that we need in the U.S. is more funding for domestic violence agencies and more flexible funding to use on things like housing, shelters, transportation, and financial resources for survivors to live separate lives from their abusers. One of our studies at Grady Hospital looked at discharge records and found that 40% of people discharged after coming in for domestic violence injuries did not have a safe location to go back to. Only 6% went to a shelter.

We have a housing and a shelter shortage. Shelters are not desirable locations, but we have to make them available for people who are in crisis and have nowhere else to go. Likewise, if the safest place to go is a cousin’s house out of town, they may not have the transportation to get there. Survivors are often in circumstances where the partner may have controlled their finances, transportation, or ability to work, so both short- and long-term support are necessary.

What work still needs to be done?

There is a need for more investigators to join this work. Awareness of violence as a public health problem—including both gender and community-based violence—has been growing. I would invite people working and studying public health to consider this interdisciplinary space that crosses the public health, social service, and criminal justice sectors.  

Dabney P. Evans, PhD, is a mixed-methods researcher and professor of issues affecting vulnerable populations at the intersection of public health and human rights. She will be speaking about Gender, Global Health, and Human Rights during the 2023 APHA Annual Meeting and Expo in Atlanta.