This Silence Must be Broken

“May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new North Star.” – Laura Dern

It is absurd that in the 21st century, a culture of silence leaves women and girls without certain rights. Some call it tradition, but I shall call it by its name – oppression.

I grew up in a conservative community in Zimbabwe where we were not allowed to discuss other people’s lives. Women were butchered in their own homes. They would yell for help, but their neighbors would shut the doors and mind their own business. Girls were forced to leave school and work as domestic helpers, or worse, be married to older men. These violations of rights have been going on for too long, and what upsets me the most is our collective inability to break the silence. People might say it’s ‘culture’, but what they don’t realise is that this is oppression and it has to stop.

I remember vividly the time in high school when I stood up to a boy who had been forcibly taking my food and making jokes about me.  Everyone revered him as a super hero – girls like myself would suffer in silence and allow him to torment them. One day, I chose to be different and shook off the dust of fear. Since that moment, I assured myself that I would use my voice and stand up for justice whenever I could.

I have younger sisters and when I look at them and the society they are growing up in, my heart bleeds. I sometimes wonder if I am influential enough to effect meaningful change, but still I choose to break the silence by raising my voice. As the old adage goes, ‘it always seem impossible until it’s done’. I hope that one day everyone who is being silenced will be able to speak out loudly and freely.

Oppressed people are silenced through being denied a platform to voice their experiences. They may fear being ostracised if they do speak up. Those who experience suffering usually have difficulty in communicating what they are going through, and this is made worse if people exist within a system that does not allow them space to express themselves. Such is the scenario in many parts of my country.

The most common problem in my community is domestic violence. Far too many women are physically abused by their partners on a daily basis. Sadly, only a handful are able to report their cases, reveal the truth and follow the procedure to attain justice. This is mostly due to the fact that many women are not financially independent and so fear being stranded – sometimes with children to care for – if they put their abusive partner behind bars. As an result, women are suffering in silence.

The absence of space for cases of abuse against women and girls to be articulated means that abusers continue to have the upper hand. Recently, in my community, there has been a case of a young girl – aged 15 – who was impregnated by her stepfather’s son. The girl became terrified after being threatened at home, and so she told members of the community who were quizzing her that it was actually her boyfriend who impregnated her. To see such a lack of justice is heartbreaking, and I’m so tired of it.

It is my desire that one day, those who are being silenced will be able to speak up. As it stands, oppressors are benefiting from the fact that victims have no space or support to stand up for themselves. We have to ensure that the oppressed are heard, in Zimbabwe and all over the world.

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’ or ‘healthy’ 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.

If you’re in the UK, you can help shape the government’s approach to the issue by giving feedback on the consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Click here to add your voice – it’s open until May 31 and doesn’t take very long!

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.

Misogyny Kills: One Week on from Toronto

Minutes before driving a rented van into a street of pedestrians and killing 10 people, 25-year-old Alek Minassian posted on his Facebook page: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

One week on from the attack, the term ‘incel’ remains all over news sites and social media. Short for ‘involuntarily celibate’, it refers to online groups of men who believe they are unable to experience sexual relationships because women unjustly deny them sex. Within such communities, frustration seems to manifest into a blanket hatred of women (Stacys) and attractive men (Chads).

Elliot Rodger, the “Supreme Gentleman” referenced in Minassian’s post, killed 6 people and injured 14 in an attack in California in 2014. The 22-year-old released a ‘manifesto’ and a ‘retribution’ video shortly before turning his gun on himself. Both the document and the video outline Rodger’s belief that he was a victim of attractive women who refused to have sex with him.

Alongside incels, other online groups making up the wider male supremacist landscape include the ‘men’s rights movement’ and the ‘pick up artist movement’. As Jessica Valenti explains it, men in these spheres share a belief in the idea that women “owe them sexual attention”. They also share a belief in the idea that male desire is an inevitable force that we can – as a society – attempt to manage as best we can, but must ultimately bow down to due to its sheer power and importance.

Misogyny is something we still feel very uncomfortable talking about because to acknowledge a problem of such scale requires us to acknowledge the huge amount of time and energy required to fix it. It’s far easier and quicker to say there are a few awful, disturbed men out there in sad online forums.

In fact, much of the response I’ve seen to recent coverage on ‘incel’ groups is pity. I understand this reaction, because to say you feel sorry for someone strips them of at least some of their power. It’s also easy to mock an easily-recognisable trope from film and television – the ‘eternal virgin’, the loser who can’t get the girl. But one week on from a mass-murder fuelled by sexist ideology, laughing at members of these groups for being pathetic, porn-addled saddos starts to sound empty. It’s well past time to face up to the consequences of these ‘pathetic’ ideologies.

Over the last week, calls for governments to monitor more closely the online corners where extreme violence lurks have grown louder. There have been previous attempts to do so – in 2017, Reddit banned an incel group with 40,000 members because it was advocating for rape as a solution to men’s ‘celibacy problems’. But we need to stop this kind of hateful, violent way of thinking long before it reaches Reddit.

To focus all the attention on internet groups suggests that misogyny is contained in extremism. Perhaps that’s a comforting way to look at it, because it allows us to believe that by tackling the existence of the groups we can tackle the existence of the ideology. But violent misogyny is not contained in extreme corners of internet forums. It’s everywhere.

It’s in the homes of the hundreds of women around the world who are subjected to domestic violence every day and it’s on the university campuses where female students are groped and assaulted by peers. It’s in courtrooms where rape victims’ clothing is examined and it’s in the language we use to talk about female sexuality. It’s in the lyrics of the songs on the radio, it’s in the tweets directed at women in positions of power and it’s in the Whatsapp groups of rugby players. It’s everywhere. We have to stop acting surprised when somebody is beaten, or raped, or killed as a result.

We have to agree that receiving regular death and rape threats on social media is not a condition of any single job in the world. We have to agree that online communities with tens of thousands of members coming up with strategies to rape as many women as possible are more than just gangs of weird losers who can’t get a date. We have to understand that such deep-rooted sexism damages men and boys and prevents them from living life as full human beings. We have to stop treating violence against women in any form, on any scale, as unfortunate and tragic yet ultimately inevitable.

What happened in Toronto last week was fuelled by misogyny. Until we can acknowledge and address the existence of the pervasive hatred of women that underpins this tragedy, it won’t be the last of its kind.

Life as a Teenage Girl in Foster Care

I never realized how important it is to have a family until I lost my own.

For the first eight years of my life I lived in a small, impoverished town in Jamaica with my five siblings and our parents. We were so poor that we often had to stay home from school because my parents didn’t have enough money to cover our school fees and uniforms. I know it was especially difficult for my mother, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer while trying to raise the five of us. Her illness eventually forced her to depend on our father to care for us without her help. My dad was not necessarily the nicest man and often resorted to yelling and saying awful things to us.

I was nine when my father moved our family to Florida and split us up to live with various relatives. My siblings and I lived with different relatives for a year before our father was finally able to bring us together to live with him—though life at home was anything but positive. Although my family was finally together again, our situation at home was a nightmare. My father became emotionally and physically abusive behind closed doors and I would often go to school with cuts, bruises and a broken heart. This abuse took a toll on me.  Not having a stable, safe place to call home eventually impacted my performance in school – my report cards were decorated with Ds and Fs.

When I was 14, our situation was brought to the attention of the Department of Child Services. Our family was given a case number and I was assigned a caseworker.  I was ultimately removed from my toxic living environment to live in a foster home with other girls. I was placed there because my caseworker was unable to find a home that would take me along with my siblings. Nothing hurts more than feeling unloved and unwanted – especially when you’re 14.

Sadly, my story isn’t unique. Around 220 million children worldwide – that’s 1 in every 10 children – are at risk of growing up without a stable, loving family. In many of these cases children lose their families to poverty, conflict or natural disasters, but in others their parents are simply unfit to parent – like my dad. Without a family, many of these kids risk being exploited, abused or trafficked. Here in the United States, it is not unusual for orphaned or neglected children to move from foster home to foster home until they are 18 and age out of the system – never understanding what true stability feels like.

At 15, I was brought to live in a family home at an SOS Children’s Village in Coconut Creek, Florida.  I was told I would be living with my siblings and that I’d be taken care of by an SOS house parent, a caregiver dedicated to caring for children who’ve grow up in similar situations like me.

My confidence was close to non-existent when I got to SOS. To make matters worse, I was beginning to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety brought on by my tumultuous upbringing. This made for a challenging time for Rashani, my house parent. Nevertheless, Rashani was patient with me; she powered through and never gave up on me.

Thanesia and Rashani

I remember my first day at SOS like it was yesterday; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so cared for. Rashani showed me my room, made me dinner and told me what SOS was all about – love, support and stability. She made it clear that I would be supported and given access to therapists to help me overcome my trauma. She also assisted me with getting a tutor to help bring my grades up. She provided the stability I desperately needed in order to stop feeling like I was constantly on survival mode.

Rashani’s support and the family environment I found at SOS truly changed my life for the better. My grades went from trash to As and Bs. I learned how to cope with my depression and anxiety. But most importantly, I felt like I finally had the tools I needed to pursue my dreams.

Even after I left SOS, Rashani was by my side. She became a case manager for SOS’s Next Steps program, which helps people like me transition to adulthood. She helped me become the young woman I am today and continues to be the parent I always needed to this day. I know that in her I have a family for life.

Fast forward to now – I am enrolled in the Army and working towards a degree in child psychology because I want to help children and teens going through what I went through. I want to give them a voice and show them that they have someone who believes in them. If it had not been for someone believing in me, I am not sure where I would have ended up.

I know not everyone has a story like mine, but I also know how hard it is to be a teen and to feel misunderstood. For the people going through tough times, take the good with the bad. There are people out there who are willing to help you and watch you succeed.

In the US and around the world, SOS Children’s Villages builds families for orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children. To learn more about SOS Children’s Villages and how you can help girls like Thanesia visit www.sos-usa.org/sponsor-a-child.