November 25th: commemorated one day, fought for every day
November 25th is the International Day to End Violence Against Women. A result of the efforts of Caribbean and Latin American feminists, the date became officialised as an international Remembrance Day by the United Nations in 1999. November 25th was chosen to mark the date of the assassination of the Mirabal sisters (Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa), three Dominican political activists, by dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in 1960.
To commemorate this sombre occasion, Women Talk Back! will host feminist campaigners who have dedicated their lives to ending male violence against women and girls on a November 25th public event. ‘Feminist Campaigners Talk Back! at the University of Bristol’ invites both our University of Bristol community and members of the public, to listen to and engage with feminists activists as each speaker focuses on different aspects of the interconnected forms male violence against women and girls takes in our society.
At Women Talk Back!, we are insistent on the fact that ending violence against women and girls cannot be a single day event. Creating a world where women are free from violence permeates everything we do, as a Feminist Student Society. Which is why all throughout November and December we are hosting workshops, writing articles and hosting events to raise awareness in our community about this crucial issue. For example, all our consciousness-raising meetings will focus on violence against women and girls, including: Mental Health and Violence Against Women, Street Harassment, Sex-based Discrimination in Medicine, Digital Violence Against Women and Life After Dating and Relationship Abuse.
The United Nations office for women and girls rights, UN Women, shares our commitment and has designated the period between 25 November until 10 December the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. UN Women states: “The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. It is used as an organizing strategy by individuals and organizations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls.”
The theme for this year’s 16 Days of Activism will be the urgent need to end the plight of rape. UN Women describes their theme by stating: “In 2019, the UNiTE campaign will mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, from 25 November to 10 December, under the theme, “Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape! While the names, times and contexts may differ, women and girls universally experience rape, sexual violence, and abuse, in times of peace or war.”
At Women Talk Back!, we stand in solidarity with all girls and women who have experienced male violence, including rape and intimate partner violence, today and every day.
In order to raise awareness about this issue, we have decided to interview one of our sisters to explore our own experiences on this matter. Her name has been redacted to protect her privacy. Sara and I met on a Thursday at a local coffee shop near the Bristol city centre. Through the windows, you could see people rushing after the rain started pouring during this Autumn afternoon. We had a lengthy discussion about male violence. She said she came across the term a couple of times as she was growing up, but that nobody really talked about it in her family or among her friends. She began:
“Come to think of it now, I had a cousin, though; Tammy. She was a promising student. All of a sudden she got married and dropped out of school. A few months later she was pregnant with her first child and that was it! She disappeared from our lives because she was a married woman now. One day when my nephew, Tammy’s son, was about two years old they showed up at our house. It was nobody’s birthday, nor a holiday, nor any other “special” occasion, so I was puzzled. She seemed to have just come randomly.
My mom said Tammy and her son had come to stay with us for some time. I was quite content as I had missed having Tammy around, for she used to live near our house when she was studying. After two days I was beginning to settle with our new routine. I kissed Tammy and my nephew goodbye before I went to school. When I came back they were gone just as they had come, leaving no trace. The only thing my mom ever said was that “they had to go”. Time went by and it became apparent that her husband was abusive and that visit to our house was one of her attempts at escape. I felt deeply sorry and powerless. I didn’t know what to do. When this happened, I was a child and didn’t fully understand. After that, I’ve only seen Tammy twice. But everyone in her immediate circle would say “if she really wanted to, she could leave”, implying she was stupid, or ‘mentally unwell’, even a sort of masochist.”
I replied to Sara that the same discourse was used with Yuliana, a primary teacher of the local school near my hometown whose husband landed her in hospital “enough times” to raise an eyebrow, but they kept their off-and-on relationship for years. I had bought into the narrative of the “silly woman” who chooses the “wrong partner”.
Another theory that would be second in popularity referred to them as “bad wives” who upset their husbands to the point that the husband has no other option other than to become violent. In some circles I belonged to, it was still common to hear people say about newlyweds things like: “Thanks God her husband is not a bad man”; or wishing a bride-to-be that “her husband doesn’t beat her too much”. I must have just turned 20 years old.
Around that time, I was a university student at the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico (IPN), studying Computer Engineering. One day, I was hanging out with some friends and a poster caught our attention. It was entitled “Violentómetro” (violence-metre). Underneath the title it read “Yes, violence can be measured too!” We read out loud through the scale jokingly, and even though I realised this could save someone’s life, I thought “it has nothing to do with me. This could never happen to someone like me.” I thought that I was an educated woman, not a bad woman, and I would choose the right partner… right?
Fig. 1 The Gender Studies department at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute developed a violence metre to help people identify risky relationships and encourage them to seek help. The original can be found through www.genero.ipn.mx
Fig. 2 English translation of the violence meter by Women Talk Back!
I mentioned my thought process at the time to Sara, who replied:
“Yes! That totally happened to me, as well. You perceive violence as something that only a “monster” would do. Like, some mysterious-stranger-who-hides-in-the-bushes kind of thing. Or you even imagine that violence could come from a man who is always shouting and angry. But you never imagine that it could be the guy you think of as “the perfect boyfriend”, who could one day punch you in the face. You wouldn’t expect it from the man who loves gardening. Certainly, not the one that volunteers at a shelter for stray cats…
Later on, this happened to me too. I had been seeing this man for over three years. We were in an on-and-off kind of “non-relationship”. At first, I was uncomfortable because the whole thing was undefined. I didn’t even want to be in it, and I mainly just wanted us to be friends. But I brushed off my own concerns because I told myself that this was a “non-relationship.” So, it was not like I could hold him responsible, we were just fooling around…
I thought he would stop making jokes about my size or my ethnicity; the ones I told him a thousand times I hated. Once it was so bad, he made me cry. In hindsight, I now spot all the red flags rising from the very beginning but I didn’t know. He said he loved me. I believed him, even when he sneered at me for not having the appetite for sex whenever he wanted me to be available. He would talked me into “having sex”, I “consented”, and then he finished, I was left feeling this burning hollow, that this was not right. That was being coerced into this ‘non-relationship’ so he could have a useful sex partner.. Of course he treated me nicely, as long as I did what he wanted, so I always tried to please him. At the time it was all very subtle, but I just couldn’t fight that feeling of walking on eggshells or that this wasn’t right. I’m glad I got out before things escalated.”
More than ten years after the National Polytechnic Institute of Mexico launched the Violence Meter campaign to address intimate partner violence, the metre was still lurking in my brain. One day, walking through Mexico City, I randomly found the leaflet with the Violence Metre in it. I glanced at it and noticed that I myself ticked more than a couple of items when describing my relationships with different partners. I quickly brushed it off. “I had chosen well. I was educated. I was a good woman,” I told myself, “there was no pattern to see.” Or was there?
I had a second look at the Violence Meter and tried to convince myself that none of it applied to me. One by one, I discarded items which matched my own experience with different partners in my past, including the one I was with at the time. “No, not him…,” I thought, as I tried to convince myself that what was happening to me couldn’t be that bad.
He was going to change.
He was a good man.
He would never hurt me.
What I had not anticipated was that the progression from relationship bliss to abuse and violence rarely occurs as you imagine it would. It has taken me years to realise that these indicators exist to identify the harm which could take place, but by no means show how or when a perpetrator will escalate his abuse from one item to another. I did not have the language to identify what was happening to me in my relationships. I fell for the trap of thinking it would be sequential and logical. I did not see the abuse coming. I hope no other woman falls for that too.
It is rare for an abusive partner to recognise his responsibility and to take action towards positive change, let alone reparation or justice for his victim. Here you can find a collection of “love and promises to change” letters written by intimate partner perpetrators to their victims before they attacked and in some cases killed them. Here you can find the domestic abuse statistics for the UK.
Of course, the existence of the Violence Metre on its own will not solve violence against girls and women. Only the perpetrators are responsible for not abusing others. On top of that, as it has been illustrated here, there is a patriarchal culture of violence which legitimises and trivialises this huge problem. If anything, what I have learnt is that having an instrument like this can help women and girls start the conversation, identify the problem and seek help.
Many women manage to break free, others die in the process. Yuliana has now separated from her husband. She has recovered her voice and the courage to be herself. Sara and I are on our way to recovery; every day we feel less frightened and more alive. I am not sure whether Tammy will ever escape her perpetrator, but I hope she knows that none of this is her fault or responsibility. I am hopeful that maybe one day she will realise that resources are available when she is ready. Most importantly, I hope that Tammy, and all women and girls currently suffering realise that a life without violence and abuse is both possible and worth fighting for.