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.

Women’s Rights are Human Rights

Every year in March, South Africans celebrate Human Rights Day, paying tribute to those who challenged the apartheid laws and fought for democracy and equality in our country.

This year, I’ve been thinking about how remarkably far South Africa has come on this front, but also about how equal access to rights is still an undeniable problem in the world. These rights include living free from slavery, violence and discrimination, access to education, and the right to earn an equal and fair wage. In essence – being treated fairly and justly.

On September 5th 1995, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

If ‘women’s rights are human rights’, why are so many women around the globe still unable to access these rights in 2018? Why are so many girls and women denied their rights just because of their gender? 2017 – 2018 brought many monumental movements and uprisings against inequality. These movements highlighted that there is still copious amounts of work to do, but also that there is a power and determination to fight.

#MeToo proved that laws around sexual harassment must be strengthened to protect everyone. The BBC pay scandal unveiled that laws need to change so that women can exercise their right to equal pay, and that organisations have to come together and fight discrimination in the work place. The Women’s March on 21 January 2017 was the largest coordinated protest in the history of the US. It had a massive impact, taking women’s rights go beyond focus groups and into a global arena, and gave a rise to a new era of activism.

These monumental moments were publicly broadcasted and celebrated globally, which contributed to worldwide awareness of the vital issues at hand. However, there have been many other achievements by women all over the world in the past year, which are not always as publicly available. These achievements and movements show copious amounts of bravery and courage within female communities, and demonstrate how strong the fight for equality remains.

In September 2017, Mexico was hit by the strongest earthquake in a century. Two weeks later, a second quake hit. Among the devastation and loss this disaster caused, Semillas, an organization building a powerful movement of women’s groups across the country for 25 years, instantly began addressing the needs of women and girls. Semillas developed a reconstruction and rebuilding campaign for the country.

Thanks to years of persistence and determination by women’s groups, in August 2017, Lebanon’s Parliament abolished a law that allowed men accused of rape to be exonerated and escape punishment if they married the individual they raped. This major legal win came just weeks after Jordan’s Parliament voted to revoke the same law. Tunisia did the same in July. These law abolishments were massive wins for gender equality, but there are still multiple laws that need to be amended.

Another monumental moment for women’s rights was when Chile’s Constitutional Tribunal voted to legalize abortion under three cases. At the heart of this legal victory was Chile’s resilient women’s movement and many other women’s groups.

And there are so, so many more examples..

I can only hope that these movements keep on highlighting issues and encouraging people to take a stand. Inequality and discrimination are not acceptable and people are no longer willing to tolerate them. 

Every single person’s rights are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a woman’s right to decide if and when she has children, and to have high-quality health care for pregnancy and childbirth. Female genital mutilation is a violation of girls’ rights, and must be eliminated. Every woman has the right to live free from discrimination.

Only when women and girls have full access to their rights – from equal pay and land ownership rights to sexual rights, freedom from violence, access to education, and maternal health rights – will true equality exist.

Invest in Opportunities for Women to Benefit Us All

The value of gender equality is priceless and it’s time that the gap be closed on a global scale. It starts with you. We can all make a difference by investing time, money and resources in providing more opportunities for women across the globe.

What continuously keeps women from thriving is oppressive cultural traditions, along with limited access to pertinent resources like education, job training and financial services. In some countries, it is easy for women to get stuck in the same stagnant unpaid domestic labor job from a very young age — and some are not even compensated.

Programs that provide girls and women in less privileged areas with opportunities like business training, life skills and a financial education act as tools to help move our world forward. Don’t believe me? Statistics show us that investing in opportunities for women to advance is in all of our best interests…

Women make an impact, especially in companies.

Research shows that companies with a female presence see better performance. In February 2016, the Peterson Institute surveyed approximately 22,000 firms from 91 different countries and concluded that a female executive presence will increase performance when measured by both gross and net margins.

Women stabilize society.

Give women an equal voice in the community and watch society grow into something more stable and peaceful. Overwhelming evidence proves that women’s empowerment and gender equality is tied to peace and stability in society. Adding women’s voices into the mix provides a better-rounded outlook on any issue, which has a positive effect on society as a whole.

Women add to the global economy.

It’s believed that women could potentially add approximately $17 trillion to our global economy if they were given the same access to the jobs and income men have.

What we can start to do is invest in programs that support global change for women. With the help of these programs and those who support them, more women will obtain the resources needed to advance.

For example, in Guatemala, two sisters began running a café for locals in a remote community. It offers fresh village-grown foods options — a luxury that wasn’t previously available. The majority of the population suffers from malnutrition and poverty, so their chances of starting their own business are slim. With the help of the Mercy Corps and Starbucks Foundation, the sisters were able to make their dreams a reality while greatly improving their community in the process.

The more investments that entities designed to help women receive, the more women all over the world will benefit. The future holds a lot of promise for women, and we can empower one another to grow and follow our dreams. Our future starts with these visions and dreams — a future of leadership, equality and change on the horizon.

CSW62: Through the Eyes of Girl Delegates

Recently, I joined the UN Advocacy Team for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS). Over the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62), where I was surrounded by many powerful and capable girls and women.

This year’s CSW theme was Empowering Rural Women and Girls, and there were attendees from all over the world. WAGGGS brings girl delegates to the conference every year to learn, advocate, and share lessons learned at CSW with their own communities.

While there were many girls and women present at CSW62 from different countries and backgrounds, speaking different languages and sharing their diverse experiences with gender inequality, there were still millions of other girls who did not have the opportunity to experience CSW62 or to advocate for themselves and their peers.

So instead of writing any more about my personal experience at the event, I believe it is imperative to highlight the diverse experiences and voices of other female delegates who were present at CSW62. I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the WAGGGS delegates selected to attend the conference on behalf of themselves, their countries and their peers. They have been preparing for the past six months to go into CSW62 and the United Nations environment ready to advocate for the inclusion of girls in the agreed conclusions – by no means an easy task.

Photo by Khayriyyah MuhammadSmith

I asked the WAGGGS delegates: “What would you like other girls who could not attend CSW62 to know about this experience?” 

Here’s what they told me…

Ines, Portugal

“If I weren’t at CSW, I would want to know that there are people who care about women and girls’ issues and there are people fighting for women and girls’ rights.

We [delegates] are demanding that our governments are an example, but we can also be the examples for our peers. If we have the right attitude and pressure when it comes to [challenging] gender norms, we can make a huge difference.”

Henda, Tunisia

“Besides all of the legal frameworks and the policies, the biggest challenges [girls face] are the social norms. The social norms and culture are the biggest challenges. Girls are not alone, and people are working for them. It takes time. Girls shouldn’t give up and should seize every opportunity to make their impact bigger and bigger.

Governments have a big role to play, but they aren’t alone. NGOs play an important role in making change. If any girl has the chance to join an [advocacy] group, that is a big step. Governments without NGOs can’t do anything.”

Lucy, Ghana

“I have a really powerful voice which I didn’t know I had until I had the opportunity to speak in front of all these girls and people to tell my story. After my speech, a girl came up to me, shook my hand and told her that my story inspired her to share her own. I have discovered that I have a voice and people hear me when I speak.”

Hannah, UK

“I would encourage girl, to realize that they have a voice and there are a lot of people here who are listening. If there is an issue they’re passionate about, don’t be afraid to go and make the change they want to see.”

Lena, Costa Rica

“Over the past week, I have learned that girls and women are still facing so many challenges regarding our gender and that the situation is pretty similar all over the world. It’s wrong to say we are already living in an equal society just because women have ‘more’ access to education and paid jobs. There is still so much work to do, and I think it’s our personal job to achieve a better and just world.”

Ankita, Malaysia

“From this last week, we’ve heard a lot of people say things about us and to us. It all starts with realizing how valuable your voice is and its impact on people. We hear about all of the wonderful work people are doing to improve the lives of girls and young women, but that is not enough. We collectively all have a responsibility to make the world that we dream of a reality. That includes civil society, governments, and individuals.”

These women, the staff at WAGGGS, and millions of others work tirelessly to improve the lives of all women and ultimately the entire world. If gender equality is valuable to you, familiarise yourself with CSW62’s agreed conclusions and engage in conversations around next steps. We all have a part to play in creating a more just and equal society.