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.

Obstetric Fistula in Zimbabwe

“It’s been three years now, I can’t wear underwear, urine is always leaking. I have developed sores on my genitals that aren’t healing because of the moisture. I dread going out in public. The last time I went to a gathering, people distanced themselves from me because of the bad smell, it repelled them. I’m confined to this house so I can bathe each time I soil myself. My entire family believes I was cursed, they say no one has ever had a disease like mine before.”

Nyaradzai, a nineteen-year-old living in my community in Mashonaland, West Province, Zimbabwe, is one of the many women suffering from fistula. Like many others, Nyaradzai has been unaware that hers is a condition that needs medical attention. She tells me her story…

“Three years ago, I dropped out of school. I was pregnant. My parents chased me from my home, so I went to stay at my boyfriend’s house. He was still in high school too, but his parents accepted me. I stayed there for six months. However, the baby died while I was in labour. It took me 6 hours to get to the nearest clinic – I was walking because my in-laws couldn’t afford to hire an ambulance to take me there. When I arrived, the nurses ignored me. In fact, they scolded me for getting pregnant at such a tender age. I was 16 at the time. While I was in labor, I passed out. I can’t recall what happened, but when I gained consciousness, I was in so much pain,” said Nyaradzai.

“When my in-laws heard that I had delivered a stillborn baby, they called me a witch and returned me to my parents’ house. My problems started a few days after labor. At first, I thought maybe I was delaying going to the toilet, but I was also wetting the bed at night. Now when I go to sleep I take a cloth and place it between my legs and put a plastic sheet underneath me so I won’t wet the bed. I can’t wear underwear because of the sores on my genitals,” she told me.

Nyaradzai’s story could be the story of many women living with fistula in Zimbabwe and other developing countries. Fistula is a silent condition, and as a result many women are suffering in silence. Huge numbers of people are not aware of what it is, what it means for women, and that women feel ashamed talking about it.

A fistula is a passage or hole that has formed between the two organs in one’s body. Obstetric fistula is the primary type of fistula that affects women in developing countries due to poor obstetric care, and can be caused by a prolonged and obstructed labour without treatment. Statistics show that at least 2 million women in developing countries are living with fistula.

Obstetric fistula is an abnormal opening that develops between the birth canal and the urinary tract. Young girls whose birth canals are still narrow can often experience fistula as the head of the baby presses hard on the mother’s bladder causing a tear which, if not surgically repaired, will cause a continuous leakage of urine.

Today marks International Day to End Obstetric Fistula. It is important that we talk about fistula, teach communities about it and encourage women to help one another through education and empowerment and delaying marriage and child bearing.

Read more posts about Obstetric Fistula on girlsglobe.org here

Health Care is a Right, Not a Privilege

This month is the one-year anniversary of when the dangerous GOP Health Care Repeal Act (aka TrumpCare) passed the House of Representatives. Thanks to the voices of health care advocates from across the country, the bill ultimately failed in the Senate – but the threat of a GOP health care repeal is still alive.

Laura Packard is a health care advocate and Co-Chair of Health Care Voter based in Las Vegas, Nevada.

As well as being a political anniversary, May also holds personal meaning for me, because last year it was the month of my first chemo treatment.

Today I am a cancer survivor. I am also a woman. According to the 217 Republicans who voted for the bill, I deserve a lifetime of higher costs and more restrictions to lifesaving and necessary health care because I was sick and because I am a woman. 

If the Repeal Bill had passed, major sections of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka ObamaCare) would have been repealed. Millions of Americans would have faced higher hurdles when they needed to access health care – including me.

Just over a year ago I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The treatments I received through the Affordable Care Act saved my life. The ACA prevented insurers from dropping people like me from any coverage, pricing it out of reach for people with serious medical conditions, or putting annual or lifetime limits on that coverage.

I’m a small business owner and so there is no insurance Plan B for me. If I cannot get coverage on the individual market, I cannot get insurance coverage at all. I am too young to be eligible for Medicare, and make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid. However, my treatment last year cost around a million dollars. I don’t have the money to pay that out of pocket, and almost all Americans could say the same.

Last year’s Health Care repeal bill was really just a tax break for millionaires, billionaires and wealthy corporations, paid for by the rest of us. If the GOP had their way, here’s what would have happened: the wealthiest one percent of Americans would have become even wealthier, while 23 million Americans would have lost their health insurance. Medicaid would have been cut by over $800 billion dollars.

In a world without protections for people with pre-existing conditions, I don’t know that I would be able to get health insurance at any price. That bill would not only have attacked my health care because of my pre-existing condition as a cancer survivor – it would have also punished me for being a woman.

Under the Republican plan, access to necessary and lifesaving women’s health care would have been cut. Health issues from ‘heavy periods’ to being a survivor of sexual assault could be labeled as pre-existing conditions – and insurers could charge women more than men for health insurance in general.

Last year, we fought back. We rallied. We protested. We called our lawmakers’ offices. But they didn’t listen.

President Trump blocked me on Twitter, Senator Heller did nothing as I was thrown out of his public forum for daring to ask about health care. But we stood strong and we stopped their votes on these dangerous pieces of legislation, again and again.

In the last year since this bill passed the US House, Republican attacks on our care have only continued. They have proposed new short-term ‘junk’ insurance plans (similar to ones I once relied upon!) that would have prevented patients from accessing essential health services. The disastrous TrumpTax passed in December will leave 13 million more Americans uninsured.

The Republican Party has not stopped threatening our health care and threatening our lives, even threatening yet another round of repeal efforts later this month. So it’s critical now that we don’t give up – we must keep our voices loud and tell our stories again and again.

If you’re in the US, sign the pledge to become a Health Care Voter, and pledge to hold our lawmakers accountable. Health care should be a right, not a privilege — and we will never stop fighting for it. Our lives depend on it.

Follow Laura on Twitter: @lpackard

Are You at Risk of Burnout Syndrome?

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a vital time to spread awareness and knowledge about mental health and the impact it has on many lives around the world. Run by UK charity Mental Health Foundation, the theme this year is stress.

Stress in itself is not a mental health diagnosis but it is an important factor that can lead to anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide. It also has physical health implications, such as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Reading about stress made me recall my days as an intern medical doctor in a rural South African hospital, and the stress that I endured in the overwhelming hospital environment. In the beginning I could not recognise that the physical and mental symptoms I was experiencing were related to stress and burnout syndrome. I found myself exhibiting signs of:

• Physical and mental fatigue
• Forgetfulness
• Depressed mood
• Irritability
• Detachment from my work and patients
• Sense of failure

After talking to my peers and doing some of my own research, I realised that I had burnout syndrome. I had never been prepared or warned about it as young professional. I also learned that as a female doctor I had 60% greater chance of experiencing burnout stress than my male colleagues. This was is related to gender-based expectations and societal pressures that women experience on a regular basis.

Burnout syndrome is a form of chronic stress. It is an alarm clock to a more serious problem and needs to be addressed as early as possible. In my instance, I spoke to my senior doctors and supervisors about how I was feeling. They helped me reduce the levels of stress I’d been feeling by finding me additional assistance for my workload. I started to focus on lifestyle changes to alleviate the symptoms such as eating healthily, exercising, and talking to someone about the frustrations I was dealing with at work.

We need to have active dialogues about stress and burnout. Ask yourself if you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above. Involve others in that self-reflection. Start this week – discuss amongst your friends, your work peers and your family. Let’s engage in conversation so that we can recognise stress and allow ourselves to receive the help and treatment we need to handle it.