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SEPTEMBER 27, 2008, 10:22 A.M. ET

Safety Check
Every year, millions of women in the U.S. become victims of violent crime. Unfortunately, most of those women don't know what to do when the unthinkable happens.


Like many young women, Ashley Balley, 20, never thought she would have to physically fight for her life, especially against someone she knew.

But three years ago, Ms. Balley stopped by her then-boyfriend's house to find him intoxicated and angry. The couple began quarrelling about his drinking and their relationship. As the argument began to escalate, he pinned her down to the floor and began beating her forcefully. It took Ms. Balley 45 minutes to break free from his hold. She ran to her car and drove home.

A neighbor called the police. When the police arrived at the boyfriend's house, he answered the door holding a gun. In court, he was charged with resisting arrest and sentenced to five years in prison, where he remains today. Attitude" that teaches women self-defense techniques and how not to be a target of crime.

In 2006, about three million women became reported victims of violent crimes that include robbery, rape and sexual assault, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistic's National 2006 Crime Victimization Survey.

According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Reports from 1976-2005, most victims and perpetrators in violent crimes are male -- in 65% of homicide cases, both the offender and victim is male. However, in cases of rape and sexual assault, the victim is almost always female. In the 2006 Crime Victimization Study, 232,960 women and 27,970 men reported being victims of rape or sexual result, with white and Hispanic women the most targeted victim group.

Women ages 12-34 are most at risk, says Steve Kardian, a retired police sergeant in Westchester, N.Y., who currently runs a women's safety and self defense program called "Defend University."

Often on their own for the first time in a new environment, young women need to be even more aware of their surroundings and resist the "it could never happen to me" mentality. Self defense experts say staying alert to what is going on around you, listening to your intuition and acting on your premonitions will help you navigate harmful situations, whether with an attacker, at work or in your social life.

Don't Become a Target

Ms. Balley decided to enroll in a self-defense class, because she says the attack could have been a lot worse and she didn't want to put herself in "that position again."

Women can often avoid getting into dangerous situations by projecting confidence and remaining focused and alert. "Don't make yourself prey to your predator," says Maria Didio, founder of Rose and Thorn Self Defense Fighting System for Women in Massapequa, N.Y.

She and other experts say attackers operate on an animalistic mindset. "Predators come on the scene and identity a target within seven seconds. They are looking for "the easiest target," Mr. Kardian says. For instance, an attacker might zero in on someone unaware of her surroundings such as a woman speaking on her cellphone or shuffling through her purse.

Likewise, it's common for a woman walking alone to pick up her cellphone and feel a sense of safety from someone listening on the other end. But "your cellphone is a false sense of security," it distracts the woman and makes her a more likely target, Mr. Kardian says. "By the time the person on the other end reports the crime," it is often too late.

On the other hand, predators will likely stay away from an aggressive and assertive person who looks like she knows where she is going.

Sharpen Your Intuition

Often young women try to be polite and not draw attention to themselves, even when someone is bothering them, but "the predator will only pounce on that behavior," Ms. Didio says. Instead, Ms. Didio suggests looking predators in the eye, screaming, or making a scene. It shows you are not afraid.

But it's not just strangers who may pose a threat. FBI reports found that female victims are more likely than male victims to be killed by an intimate partner or family member and according to the National Violence Against Women Survey, 22.1% of women (and 7.5% of men) reported they were physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, girlfriend or date at some time in their lives. In addition, 8% of women and 2.2% of men reported at least one incidence of being stalked in their lifetime. The report estimates that approximately one million women and 371,000 men are stalked annually in the U.S.

If you get a weird feeling about a person or are scared by the actions of someone you are close to, don't dismiss your intuition and assume you are being paranoid, Ms. Didio says. Instead, make a decision to act: Remove yourself from any situation and seek help if you feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason. "So what if you did something a little out of the ordinary, the point is that you are safe," says Lori Gervasi, author of "Fight Like a Girl…and Win."

Make a Plan

Preparedness often takes away the fear of an unsafe environment. Learn to protect yourself "before the bad guys show up," says Ms. Gervasi. Having a plan in place will make you more confident in any situation because you will rarely be caught off-guard.

The more prepared you are, the more control you can exert, says Ms. Gervasi. For example, if you recently moved to a new apartment, create a strategy for what you would do if a stranger approached you on your way home, if an ex-boyfriend was suddenly at your building entrance or if someone broke into your room. Give emergency phone numbers to your friends and family and locate the nearest police station and hospital.

For physical training, young women may want to try martial arts, kick-boxing or a general self-defense class. Learning how to fight an attacker is like "giving a police officer a gun, it's just another tool" in her arsenal, Mr. Kardian says.

Classes can also teach women about self confidence and trusting instincts, says Caroline Blair, an academic advisor at Northern Michigan University who was raped by another student in 2002 when she was a freshman at the same college.

About a year after she was raped, Ms. Blair began seeing a counselor and got involved with a program related to speaking out on violence against women. Now she works to bring personal safety and awareness education, as well as self-defense classes, to campus and her community.

"Not only are self-defense classes great for being able to fight back, but they empower you" to be "more aware of what's around you and teach you to set limits for yourself and other people," she says.

Write to Shelly Banjo at