According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women have experienced domestic violence in their lifetime.
To empower victims of domestic abuse through medical expertise, a group of USF medical students created an organization, Empowering Survivors Through Education Experiences in Medicine, or ESTEEM, which is affiliated with the Spring of Tampa Bay, a local shelter and support program for victims of domestic violence.
Bailee Olliff, a medical student and director of ESTEEM, said domestic violence shelters are often overcrowded and underfunded, consequently lacking essential resources. Health education, she said, is thus prioritized below food and safety.
Olliff said she founded the organization to teach medical literacy to domestic abuse victims, thus alleviating some financial and emotional weight.
The program, she said, is designed to be more personal and far reaching than other services offered. Too many medical practitioners give abuse victims a hotline number and neglect to follow up, she said.
“We’re not physicians yet,” Olliff said. “We can’t provide medicine, but we can give knowledge.”
Sabrina Prabakaran, a medical student and shelter site leader of ESTEEM, said the group offers a variety of monthly lessons, covering topics such as nutrition, mental well being, personal hygiene, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and contraception.
“It is a science to know what to do when handling an abuse situation,” she said.
Prabakaran said she recalled a diabetic woman who was apprehensive to test her own blood glucose levels. The woman was physically able, but the emotional mistreatment of her past made it too difficult to go through with the action of drawing blood.
“This woman was telling me how glad she is to be able to take a walk outside,” she said. “Her leash was so tight, she wasn’t able to go out of the house.”
Kristin Prewitt, a medical student and transitional site leader for ESTEEM, said those in abusive relationships are stringently controlled by their partners. Shelters often permit victims to bring their children and dogs, reducing leverage an abusive partner may have.
“The phone, the family, the money, where you go, what you eat, what websites you go to, what you wear, everything — they control it,” Prewitt said.
But abuse is often cyclical, Prabakaran said, and sometimes shelters see the same visitors return.
After the first incidence of abuse, the victim sometimes forgives the offender, but if this process becomes a regular recurrence, each proceeding incident can be more violent than the last, Prabakaran said.
“It’s disheartening to see them come back again, but the fact that they are showing up to your programs, means that they want to learn. You know you’re making a difference in their lives,” Prabakaran said.
“To be able to empower someone else is extremely rewarding. I want everyone to feel like they can do anything with their lives,” she said.
Prewitt said ESTEEM hopes to increase awareness of intimate partner violence within the USF community.
“Domestic violence is a huge thing, but it’s something that people don’t like to talk about,” she said.