Silence is not Strength. Silence is Deadly.

Content note: this post refers to abuse

I used to think silence was a reflection of strength, respect, and intellect. A lot was going on in my life, but the fear of breaching what I thought of as strength kept me tight-lipped about my experiences.

My mother passed on when I was about 8 months old. My father followed when I was 12 years of age. I felt their absence in my life immensely, but I thought that I had to be strong. I did not want to weigh my siblings down with my emotions because I could see that they were battling with their own.

My parents raised me with so much love. However, in my childhood and adolescence I had my own battles to deal with. For starters, I was abused at 5 years of age. I did not speak to anyone about it.

As a result, I unknowingly adopted a lifestyle that led me down a path of depression, immorality and deceit. It was not until 2017 that I eventually opened up to my family and a few close friends. I gave them a glimpse of what had happened to me, from what I could remember. You can imagine the sombre atmosphere in the air that day.

My family immediately embraced me with love and encouragement. After hearing my story, they did all they possibly could to support me.

Seeing them heartbroken and despondent, I regretted staying silent for so many years about this traumatizing experience. It is something that has greatly affected my life in all aspects, including my relationships with those closest to me.

I write this to tell you that silence can be deadly.

Oh, how my thoughts consumed me and my mind in ways I cannot even explain. What I can say is that the impact was devastating and abhorrent to the point that it almost lost me all the truly important things in my life.

Today is different, and I am different. I urge everyone to SPEAK UP. It can be out loud or written down. However you choose to do it, let it all out and make your voice heard. Confide in people in your life you can trust. Allow them to listen to you and help you. Accept their help and support.

Do not let fear or shame hold you back.

I would say to anyone reading this and suffering in silence – try to acknowledge all that happens in your life, both the good and the bad. And most importantly of all, never ever think that you are beyond repair.

Here’s Why Scotland’s New Domestic Abuse Law Matters

On 1 April 2019, a new piece of legislation came into effect in Scotland. The Domestic Abuse Act makes several fundamental changes to how violence against women and children is defined and prosecuted within the Scottish criminal justice system.

The new law has been informed by survivor experience, making it not only progressive but potentially transformative. It strengthens the power of police and prosecutors to tackle our pervasive problem with domestic violence. It also legally acknowledges what many of us already know to be true – abuse comes in many forms, not all of which leave bruises on bodies.

Scotland’s Domestic Abuse Act changes how abuse is defined, understood and prosecuted in 4 ways:

1. It criminalises coercive control

Coercive control refers to controlling and harmful patterns of behaviour. It can include psychological, emotional, sexual or financial abuse. It may or may not involve physical violence. It’s often systematic and the effects can be devastating. Scottish Women’s Aid report that coercive control is the kind of violence survivors tell them has the most significant impact and is hardest to recover from.

The new Domestic Abuse Act makes coercive control a criminal offence for the first time, meaning that people engaging in patterns of controlling behaviour can now be punished by law.

2. It makes domestic abuse a ‘course of conduct’ offence

This simply means the law will look at domestic abuse cases through a ‘big picture’ perspective. Abusive situations are often made up of long lists of events, moments and actions which take place over periods of time. If each of these were to be looked at individually, they might not seem very serious. However, when many small incidents are pieced together and the accumulative effect considered, the big picture can show a deeply harmful situation.

This is very different from past approaches of treating domestic abuse as one-off incidents that could be pinpointed to certain times on certain dates, like we would for burglaries or traffic accidents. Domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily operate like other crimes and the new law acknowledges that it is often more relevant to consider accumulative behaviour over time.

3. Proof that an individual was traumatised is no longer required

As CEO of Scottish Women’s AidDr Marsha Scottexplains, this is “a terrible thing to have to go into court and prove”. In the past, the law has been criticised for re-traumatising victims and placing unreasonable obstacles in the path to securing a conviction.

Instead of requiring proof that a victim was harmed, the new law requires proof that the accused intended to cause harm. It states that if a reasonable person with access to all the facts would assume that the situation would cause harm, this will be considered appropriate evidence.

4. Children are acknowledged as victims

The Domestic Abuse Act reflects a new understanding within the legal system that it doesn’t matter if children are physically present when abusive behaviour is taking place. If they are in the family, they are a victim.

For the first time, the enormous impact that growing up within an abusive situation can have on a child will be recognised in the law and considered in the prosecution process.

Changes to the structure, wording and focus of domestic abuse legislation create the possibility for us to change the landscape of gender-based violence.

Scotland is a country committed to remaining at the forefront of global gender equality policy – a fact I’m extremely proud of. At the same time, it’s a country where gender definitions remain stiflingly narrow. Traditional understandings of masculinity can make healthy expression of emotion an impossibility for many men, and notions of familial responsibility can leave many women playing out restrictive and isolating roles in society.

The widely-held social belief that what happens behind closed doors is no one else’s business doesn’t help, nor does a very Scottish tendency not to want to ‘make a fuss’. These are pieces in the gender equality puzzle that can’t be fixed by the law. They require education, open conversation and a refusal to continue acting as though the status quo is inevitable.

Gender inequality is both the cause and the consequence of gender-based violence.

Abuse doesn’t always show itself in the ways it does in soaps or films. It isn’t always neighbours calling the police, mascara running down cheeks and black eyes. It can be quiet, and invisible, and soul-destroying.

We have a huge amount of work still to do. But with this new legal framework, Scotland is starting to feel better equipped for the task.

Stop Calling it Revenge Porn. It’s Abuse.

‘Revenge porn’ describes the action of one individual sharing another’s private or intimate photos or videos publicly without first obtaining their consent.

The term came into prominence in the UK around 2014/15. Activists such as Charlotte Laws started to lobby for appropriate ‘revenge porn’ laws to be put in place.

‘Revenge porn’ is outdated

While this advocacy started as recently as 5 years ago, the term ‘revenge porn’ has already become outdated. It implicitly suggests two things, both of which are false. Firstly, the word ‘revenge’ suggests that the target of the crime has done something wrong and is therefore deserving of some form of retaliation. Secondly, the word ‘porn’ has consent inherent within it. Pornography is, and should only be, created by consenting adults.

‘Revenge porn’ is a crime

Activists, campaigners and researchers in the field say the correct term should be ‘image-based sexual abuse’. We need an all-encompassing term that removes all blame from the target of the abuse and highlights the devastating, abusive nature of the crime.

The term ‘revenge porn’ first appeared in UK legislation in 2015. An amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 made it a crime to distribute a private sexual image of someone without their consent and with the intention of causing them distress.

The law is not fit for purpose

Unfortunately, the law as it stands misses the mark. Instead, we need to start using the term ‘image-based sexual abuse’. This would reframe the issue as a crime that does not blame the survivor.

The treatment of perpetrators needs to be updated as well. Currently, the law mandates that perpetrators who have been found guilty can be punished with up to two years in prison. But, under the same law, it’s difficult to prove the perpetrator is guilty without causing further distress to the survivor.

For one, survivors are currently not granted any anonymity. In their attempts to keep their private videos and images out of the spotlight, survivors currently have no choice but to consent to their case being made public. A simple change in the law granting survivors anonymity could be invaluable in encouraging them to come forward and seek justice.

What can I do if this happens to me?

If you’ve had your private photos or images shared without your consent, you might find it helpful to speak to the Revenge Porn Helpline. They are set up to support survivors, and can help to have photos or videos taken down from sites like Facebook.

It’s also possible to ask Google to remove images from search results. You might also want to contact the police or seek legal advice or counselling. You can specify whether you’d like to be seen by a male or female police officer, lawyer or counsellor, who can advise you on next steps.

Whatever you decide to do, know that the fault lies solely with the perpetrator. The crime has been committed by the individual who wilfully shared your images or videos without your consent.

What Does an Abusive Relationship Look Like?

Recent research by Cosmopolitan and Women’s Aid has revealed disturbing new statistics on young women’s experiences of domestic violence in the UK.

In a survey of more than 122,000 people, more than a third of women (34.5%) revealed that they had been in an abusive relationship.

More shocking, though, is that many of the women surveyed didn’t actually recognise the signs of an abusive relationship in the first place. Almost two thirds (63.8%) of the women who answered that they had not been in an abusive relationship revealed elsewhere in the survey that they had in fact experienced behaviour or treatment from a partner that could be classed as abusive.

When it comes to domestic violence, the first image that comes to my mind is a frail, bloodied woman with black eyes and scratched arms, curled up in the corner of a dark room. She’s straight out of the anti-violence awareness campaigns I saw around me growing up in the UK.

In reality, abuse comes in many forms other than physical and doesn’t always leave easily-identifiable marks on bodies.

Abuse includes a vast range of actions and behaviours, from emotional damage, financial manipulation, sexual intimidation, coercive control, social media invasion and much more. Of course, physical violence can and does occur, but a relationship can be abusive without it, or for a long time before it happens.

The frightening thing is that this survey suggests that young women in the UK today are unaware of what counts as abuse. Without being aware of what counts as abuse, and without being able to name certain behaviours as violent, it’s difficult to protect yourself or your friends and family from relationships that are toxic, damaging or even life-threatening.

During an interview for BBC Woman’s Hour, 3 young women who had experienced abuse in their first ever relationships described some of the characteristics that made those relationships so unhealthy. Each of their experiences were different, but some of the things they spoke of included extreme jealousy, forced isolation, being forbidden from talking to other people, a constant undermining of self-esteem, excessive anger, sexual shaming – sometimes through social media, financial exploitation and derogatory language.

A common reflection among these young women, as well as others who have shared their experiences through Cosmopolitan, is that it’s difficult to know when something is wrong if you don’t know what’s ‘normal’ in the first place.

Each of them described experiencing a large volume of small actions or behaviours that on their own might seem insignificant, but when added together created a toxic and frightening environment to find themselves in.

Speaking on the release of these new statistics, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said:

“Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. As the shocking findings from our research show, many younger women may not recognise that their partner is abusive if there isn’t physical violence and may even think that threatening, controlling and intimidating behaviour is normal in relationships. We know that younger women are most likely to experience domestic abuse but least likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”

Surely we are failing young people if we aren’t teaching them what a healthy relationship looks like before they embark on one for themselves for the first time.

Surely to recognise red flags for yourself or for the people you care about you need to have first been given some examples of what those red flags might look like. Relationship education needs to be prioritised in all schools, and it needs to encompass much more than the basics of sex and contraception. No young person should have to experience an abusive relationship – or watch a friend experience one – as a way to figure out what is and isn’t an acceptable way to be treated by another person.

For more information and support, visit Women’s Aid’s website or call the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.

Why She Stays: Behind the Doors of Domestic Abuse

Why do you think she stays? Because she wants to? Because she loves him that much? Maybe. But she may also stay because red is the only color she can identify when she sees him. She may stay because she’s terrified of the thought of her children having to live in a shelter, having no financial resources, having no one to rely on. She may stay because he threatens to take her children if she tries to leave.

In the eyes of others, he’s charming and kind. But no one knows that he’s also someone who pays the children’s school fees if he feels like it, and the light bill or buy groceries some of the time, but there’s usually a catch. He always makes sure she and the kids feel guilty about it, as though they’re strangers depending on his unjustified kindness. He’s someone and he’s no one, all at once. This is where her confusion lies.

There are also other things he is not. He is not someone who can give love, because he cannot receive it. He is not someone who is able to put himself in anyone else’s shoes. He is not someone who will share her burdens. He is not someone who wants to model compassion and integrity for his children. He doesn’t know how to pretend to be these things, nor does he care to.

He is not someone who will protect his family, and in fact, he is the one from who they need protection. He is secretly proud of his cowardly ways.

So you ask, why does she stay? What’s wrong with her? Well, would you leave if you had nowhere to go, no one who could help you, no money to feed your children or no way to get them to school or doctors’ appointments? What about if he took away your family’s medical insurance? And what about if your child had some chronic condition? What if he threatened to call immigration?

It seems easy to question some other random person. Yet, it’s more often not some other random person, it’s your co-worker, your neighbor, your friend, your sister. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you don’t know it is. Maybe you think someone else’s situation is worse and so you justify to yourself that yours isn’t that bad, so it couldn’t be considered abuse.

He doesn’t punch or slap you like those other men. He only occasionally curses at you or randomly accuses you of cheating when he’s really angry. Sometimes he shoves you but always says he feels terrible afterward. He doesn’t stop you from working. Yet he drops by unannounced from time-to-time, and come to think of it, more frequently lately.

He says he loves you so much he wants to spend all of his time with you, especially when you try to hang out with friends or make plans to see family. He says he wants to take care of the finances. He gives you an allowance because it’s convenient. He feels there is no need for you to have access to the account. Access for what?

No, no, no. None of this is me, you say. Okay. But are you afraid to say the wrong things, to do something that might upset him, go to places he may not approve of, wear clothes he might find inappropriate? Do you have a running reel in the back of your mind of what he might say about this or that, about just about every decision in your life?

But you’re always on his mind because he cares, you say. I get it. It’s all very difficult. It’s insidious. It’s perplexing. Comprehending his intentions can be difficult and even the fleeting idea of leaving is not an easy one to consider.

Let’s now once again reconsider why she stays, why you stay, why we stay, why we’ve considered leaving, why we don’t have to do any of it alone whether we stay or go. Most of us, 1 out of 3 females in fact, has been abused, most often by a loved one. You are not alone.

So again I want you to believe me when I say it, you don’t have to do it alone, no matter what you decide.

We need to talk about Black Women NOW

Precilla* was raped by her cousin when she was nine and later by an uncle. She never spoke about it. Why? Her father and other men in her family were always talking about protecting her. But instead of protecting her, they were raping her. Confused, she chose to remain silent. The reality for many black women is silence and the reasons why they choose this are complex.

For many black women silence means survival.

As Feminista Jones says, the bodies of black women have been used for labour and exploited to serve the needs of others while our needs are swept under the carpet. We are ‘othered’ – taught to be silent about the problems we face, reminded that racism is the bigger issue, not sexism or violence. Black girls are taught that you do not talk about problems. As a black woman, you deal with it. Loyalty to the “community” reigns supreme, even when the community (brothers, fathers and sons) are often responsible for violence and abuse.  As a result, many women and girls remain silent about injustice that occurs.  We do not trust the police; after all, our fathers and sons have been terrorized by the state. The police also rape and abuse us too – why should we trust them? If you dare to speak out, you are selfish. The community posits that we are making them look bad in front of white people.

Black women’s experiences of violence are a different ball game altogether. I am not saying that the experiences of white women do not matter, but we must recognize other discriminations can affect your experiences. Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the theory of “intersectionality” in 1986 which can be explained as how the different types of discrimination interact.

It is not black lives that matter, but black boys.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states 1.3 million American women experience domestic or intimate partner violence every year.  However black women are almost three times more likely to die as a result of domestic or intimate partner violence. Black women only make up 8% of America’s population, yet 22% of all the homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to them. Homicide is one of the leading causes of death for black women aged 15 to 35. 60% of black girls will be victims of sexual assault by the time they are 18. The average life expectancy for a black transgender woman is 35 years. When a white woman experiences street harassment, it rarely leads to death. Black women are being killed, increasingly, when they do not pay attention to street harassment.

In the United States, our silence on this issue contributes to the further abuse and suffering of women. We often ignore the median wage for black women in America is $602 for those in full time employment compared to $738 for white women. And black women, especially mothers, are forced to stay in bad relationships where financial needs are imperative. In a society where manhood is defined by your ability to provide for your family, when black men fail in employment, they assert their power in the household with the women taking the blows. Take one second to think about how many women of colour have died – and realize that we do not even have enough accurate data or research. The invisibility of black women has carried on for too long. We have been ignored, told to shut up, or killed when we speak up.

This culture of silence we have within communities is stripping black women of their humanity and dignity.

The hardest thing to accept is in our society we do not see black girls to be valuable and important. It is not black lives that matter, but black boys. We silence our daughters because of race solidarity, forgetting that race solidarity does not mean one is quiet about abuse and violence. We want freedom for our sons but we neglect the freedom of our daughters. We expect our daughters to fulfill the strong black woman stereotype that is detrimental and has caused us more harm than good. This so-called strength that we demand of black women, to carry on without breaking from the code of loyalty is becoming our downfall. We must stop the shaming and the blaming. We must start talking properly about black girls. As Janine Jackson said, “what we don’t count, we don’t care about.” We must start caring about black girls and women – and the men in our lives must join this fight too.

Learn more by following #HerDreamDeferred on Twitter.

 *name changed to protect identity 

** I do not claim to speak for all black women in this post.

Cover image c/o Flickr Creative Commons