The Time is Now
©Population Services International / Photo by Manprit Shergill
Imagine, for a moment, being in a room full of strangers and sharing out loud a personal story from your life.
A story that carries great shame; one that brings that familiar sick feeling to the pit of your stomach. In the past you didn’t dare tell this story in the open. You kept quiet – the only way to hide the pain and the torment you endured. You needed to silence the whispering voices that urged you to tell someone. You dared not speak. You saw around you other women speaking out, only to be shut down. You became certain that the power of your tormentor would win out either way.
Over the course of my work with Population Services International on Wajood – an initiative to improve gender norms and end gender-based violence (GBV) in India – I’ve sat with survivors of violence as they shared their stories for the first time. I’ve felt the pain in their hearts and seen the tears in their eyes as they finally brought these shameful experiences to the light. It is not easy. But it is the only way to end GBV.
Despite my experience working with countless survivors, one story still marks me to this day.
Several years ago, I was among a roomful of empowered change makers and activists in India to discuss their work to end GBV. While they all had stories from the women with whom they worked, personal stories were rarely told. I was shocked to hear from an esteemed physician, an OB-GYN who donated her services to women who suffered rape and other sexual abuses. She was pregnant with her second child when it happened. One evening at dinner, she had forgotten to put ghee, a form of butter, on the table. Her husband, who is also a physician, became enraged and slapped her off of her seat. As she fell on her belly, he yelled "Where's the ghee?" So she simply got up and got the ghee.
I asked her about the history of violence in her marriage. While she recounted the numerous times she had been beaten, she did not view her situation as the same violence her clients were facing. It took her a few more years to leave the marriage – an act of courage, for which she was chastised by her entire community. She ultimately found solace with the women she was treating.
The recent #MeToo campaign has shown the world the level and extent of this disease that is running rampant in our societies. Just as a pandemic makes no distinction between the rich or the poor, the young or the old, GBV cuts across all socio-economic boundaries. Yet, because we are silent about the violence in our own lives or do not recognize it for what it is, its damage remains invisible. Abusers walk free, and are even lauded, while their victims are forced into the darkness. The power of the #MeToo movement lies in the communal sharing of experiences – women using their voices to shed light on these atrocities. The women who have whispered or shouted about their abuse at the hands of the likes of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, have done themselves and the world a tremendous service. Now, we can begin to heal.
So this 16 Days of Activism, if you are wondering how you can possibly make any difference, reflect on the brave individuals who have come forward to share their stories. As they finally speak their truth, their voices join together and the system of violence is beginning to crumble. Therefore, we must continue to speak up and to encourage others to come forward. We must also believe women, who, often at great risk, expose harassment or abuse.
I ask you to do a few things:
- First, acknowledge an experience of violence, sexual harassment or where you were made to feel shameful in your own life. It doesn’t matter whether it happened 50 years ago or yesterday. Share your story with someone you trust. And if you’re not yet ready to speak it out, write it down.
- Watch this TED Talk from Brené Brown to understand shame and how we can use resilience as a tool out of the darkness of abuse.
- Watch this clip in which I recount my own story of surviving abuse and encourage others to speak of their abuse and to put and end to generational domestic abuse in their lifetimes.