Researchers at the University of Alaska Anchorage are gathering regional data on domestic violence and sexual assault over the next few weeks.

A telephone survey began on March 11 in some of the state’s smaller communities, including Sitka, Kodiak, and Bethel.

The survey is only for women over the age of 18, and is intended to give researchers and policy makers a clearer understanding of Alaska’s already-high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.
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The Alaska Victimization Survey sampled 800 women statewide in 2010, and delivered some staggering results. The work estimated that 59-percent of Alaskan women would experience intimate partner or sexual violence in their lifetimes.

Gretchen Clarke is a primary prevention consultant for Sitkans Against Family Violence, also known as the “SAFV” shelter. Clarke says past surveys have been so broad that the results – though alarming – may mask the actual extent of the problem.

“It’s pretty safe to say that across the state and across the country, figures on domestic violence and sexual assault are lower – they’re very conservative numbers. And so we’re trying to get a more-refined-bring-the-lens-in-closer to try and find out what the true numbers are. It’s safe to say that they’re underreported. We’re just trying to find out at what level.”

This year’s survey will take an even larger sample – 1,100 women – in smaller communities where some believe domestic violence and sexual assault rates may be higher. Small communities are special concern. Julia Smith is SAFV’s prevention coordinator.

“Sitka’s one of the recipients of the Rural Community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence pilot grant. Sitka and Kodiak, Dillingham, and Bethel have all received this grant in the last year. Part of the funding – part of the whole program – is to do a regional survey on domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Visit the Alaska Victimization Survey website.

View survey results by city here.

Participation in the rural pilot project afforded Smith and Clarke the opportunity to work with researchers at the College of Health and Social Welfare at the University of Alaska Anchorage, to help shape the survey. Clarke says that survey asks very personal questions. Perhaps, painfully personal questions.

“Some of the questions will ask, Have you ever been hit, punched, slapped or kicked by a partner? That would be an example. Have you ever been forced to engage in sexual activity that included penetration, against your will? That’s an example. It’s not all at that level of graphic detail.”

The intimate nature of the questions has already prompted at least one call to the police in Sitka, shortly after the survey started last week. Clarke and Smith stress that the survey is anonymous, and that no data can ever be linked to the individual taking the survey. Any woman who agrees to participate in the survey can stop at any time.

Clarke says the survey is being conducted exclusively by women who have been trained to respond to the wide spectrum of possible reaction from the survey takers. The calls to police are unusual; more often, Clarke says, the survey can be a form of catharsis.

“Most women are really thankful for the opportunity to report what is so often silent and hidden for them. And this is a chance to tell their story and say what’s happened, and make their number count.”

The survey is being conducted through random phone calls. The survey-taker will identify herself as working for “Precision Opinion” and ask to speak only to women in the household over the age of 18. At the end of the full survey, which takes about a half-hour, women will be offered a check for twenty-dollars as a thank you gift. The mailing address respondents provide will not be associated with the survey database.

Julia Smith says the survey results should be compiled by the end of the summer. We’ll have a better idea of domestic violence rates in rural communities then, and…

“We are also using these results to guide planning and policy and provide more support for prevention programming.”

Women can expect survey calls through April. Women who want to take the survey, but receive the random call at an inconvenient time, will be permitted to reschedule.