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Borderlands: Women’s Shelter Helps To Heal The Pain 15 (1997)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Women’s Shelter Helps To Heal The Pain

Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.<

By Bianca Encarnacion


Image caption: Drawing of a woman being threatened. 

An estimated two to four million women of all races and classes are battered each year, although only 572,000 reports of assaults are officially reported, making this one of the most underreported and prevalent crime in America. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, about 1,400 women die every year from murder and assault by husbands and boyfriends. In 1993, 161 of these women were from Texas.

Thirty years ago, battered women had nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide. Then in the 1960s, California opened the first shelter for battered women and their children. In 1977, El Paso's Our Lady of the Valley Convent began letting battered women seek sanctuary.

In 1978, a crisis hotline was started, and the volunteers that staffed the phones used the basement of the convent to house the women, but only eight could stay at any one time. Over the next five years, demand for shelter by battered women grew, and larger accommodations were needed.

In 1983, the shelter moved to its current confidential address, a larger facility that was paid for by Community Development funds and grants. The facility includes 12 bedrooms, six bathrooms and a fenced-in backyard. Yet the present building has become inadequate. Rosemary Combs, the Executive Director of El Paso's shelter, says, "We need a new dormitory. We're in desperate need of more space." 

The El Paso facility offers a variety of services including emergency shelter, counseling for mothers and children, services for children of the abused and a 24-hour hotline and outreach services for women who decide not to go to the shelter but who still need help. The children in the shelter are tutored so they will not fall behind in their studies. A staff of 15 plus 18 adult volunteers and eight teen volunteers helps the women and their children. 

The El Paso Shelter for Battered Women plays an important part in the healing process for many of these women. The shelter helps women out of abusive relationships and helps end the cycle of abuse for women living along the border. 

Clients are not charged for services, and they can stay as long as they are setting goals for themselves in order to get back on their feet and back out into the world. A woman should be trying to find a job or continuing her education. The shelter helps with job placement.

Counseling is given to help battered victims become stronger individuals and realize that they are not at fault for the abuse. Women are also taught how to manage their money, find a home and secure day care. The shelter also has a program of counseling in battering intervention and prevention for men who are abusers. 

Over 1,500 shelters are open in the U .S., most offering similar programs as those in El Paso. Helen Tiemey, author of the Women's Studies Encyclopedia, says the shelters help women work through their problems. They are able to speak to other women who are in the same situation, helping to ease the pain and loneliness. Shelters provide the women with a safe place; time to recover from their abuse and a supportive environment. It gives them the feeling of confidence to leave their mate, and it shows the mate that the woman has someone standing behind her. 

Tiemey points out that many women stay in abusive relationships because they are economically dependent on men. When these women enter a shelter, they frequently have no money for housing, transportation or even food. They are in desperate need of job training and employment programs. If they can't make it on their own, they have no choice but to return to their mates. Most shelters can provide these resources to help stop the violence. Some shelters even have in-house training, legal assistance and day care programs. 

Experts have isolated three phases in the cycle of violence. The first phase consists of the anger or rage, whereas in the second phase the abuse actually happens. Finally, in the last phase the man denies the abuse and treats the woman really well so she will stay with him and not remain angry. This last stage is what makes it hard for a woman to leave the man she loves. She makes excuses for his acts and needs a place to heal. 

Shelters have a secret address and phone number. A woman must contact a crisis line such as 911 in order to be escorted to the shelter. Isabel Hernandez, assistant director of the El Paso shelter, said, "If a man comes looking for his wife, we immediately call the police." When a woman chooses to stay at a shelter, she may only be able to stay up to eight weeks, but during this time she doesn't have to worry about her mate finding her. It gives her time to think and make decisions about the future. 

A 1988 study showed that women in Texas shelters have experienced extremely severe levels of abuse, worse than that reported in other states. Cultural differences may explain this difference. Some cultures bring up boys to believe that males are to dominate women, thus producing controlling adult males. Sometimes this control becomes abuse. 

A 39-year-old abused Hispanic woman in El Paso says this was how her husband was brought up and when she resisted control, the abuse started. "Hispanic men are full of macho pride," she says. "If you try to question them or try to have a life outside of your family, they feel threatened. It's almost like they doubt their masculinity. I continue to stay married because my family, like most Catholic, Hispanic families, doesn't believe in divorce. They believe that you must stay with your husband no matter what and serve him. That is why I'm still married and have been for seventeen years." 

After a period of silence, she adds, "Even if my family approved, I wouldn't be able to leave because I don't have a good job and I have my boys to support." Some Hispanic women bear an extra burden of lower income, less education, and more children, as well as cultural and language differences. However, studies indicate that abuse occurs across all ethnic groups and socio-economic levels. 

Hernandez says of El Paso clients, "Women usually visit the shelter five to twelve times before deciding to leave their mates." A counselor at the shelter adds that Monday is the day of the week when the facility receives the most number of calls. Weekends and holidays seem to be peak times for spousal abuse.

The hotline receives over 600 calls a month and  200 clients a month use the shelter's services. When leaving the shelter, women say that they continue to use the hotline, counseling, and referral services. It is when a woman continues to use the shelter for help that the shelter knows it has been successful.

El Paso's shelter was recognized as President Bush's 992nd Daily Point of Light in the nation in 1992.This program recognized those who successfully addressed a community's most pressing social problems through direct acts of voluntary service.

The presence of a shelter in a community does not mean that the problem of abuse has been solved or that battered women are no longer a priority. Abuse must be seen as a community problem. In the past few years much attention has been given to spousal abuse. Both women and the rest of society must recognize that battered women are not at fault and that they can be survivors, not just victims. The El Paso Shelter continues in its quest to help make this possibility a reality. " 

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