Friends of well known businesswoman and philanthropist, Thandi Ndlovu who died in a car accident in August, used her funeral to speak of the domestic abuse she had suffered for years at the hands of her husband.
Yvonne Wakefield co-founder of The Warrior Project, a victim support organisation, says it is tragic that it was only safe for the silence around her domestic abuse to be broken after her death, when she could no longer be harmed.
“The thought that this outwardly successful and supported woman shouldered her pain, both physical and emotional, in complete isolation for years, is devastating, especially because we all know deep down that she actually represents thousands of women who deal with this every day,” says Wakefield.
She says it becomes clear that silence is the enabler that has allowed it to perpetuate to epidemic proportions. “Breaking the silence is the foundational first step towards addressing the issue. But to do this, we need a deeper understanding of how silence became the prevailing – and socially endorsed – response to abuse.
“Silence is informed by different drivers for different people. For example, people who have never had personal exposure to abuse choose not to engage on the topic because from the outside it is black and white, and simply shouldn’t happen. Conversations about abuse are avoided in favour of lighter and nicer topics, and when comment is called for from the ignorant, the response is that an abused person should just leave, and if she doesn’t, she’s to blame or even complicit.
“For the abused, there are a number of factors that inform silence. At first, there’s denial. Denial happens when we refuse the notion that our situation is unhealthy and hold on to the dream that we bought into, hoping that the difficult parts will change. So we hush the alarm bells, distract ourselves and divert our thoughts.
“Once we realise that our situation is unhealthy, there’s the pressure to uphold the outward impression of the dream, so the silence continues. It can be embarrassing as a seemingly strong and together person, to tell people how you are treated behind closed doors, and then to justify (mostly to the ignorant) having not taken steps to leave in the circumstances.
“Then there’s shame. One of the hallmarks of abusive relationships is that the victim is made to believe wholeheartedly that they are the cause of the problem, that they deserve the abuse, and that if they just changed themselves it would go away. So much time and energy is directed towards fixing ourselves, and we avoid telling people about the domestic abuse for shame around our believed role in it.
“And then there’s love. Most abused people love – or at least loved – their abusers, and are very aware of the root of insecurity that triggers their abusive behaviour. Because of this, and also our hope that our abusers will heal and not need to act out in this way, we justify it, make excuses for it, and keep the details to ourselves. Ultimately, our empathy reigns – we long for them to be healthy, feel whole and not need to project their pain onto us. Also, we don’t want our loved one (often the father of our children) to face legal action and suffer reputational damage, so we stick to the silence.
“The problem is that once we speak, we face outside pressure to leave and judgment if we don’t. Once we speak, we can no longer pretend that it isn’t happening. And after years of domestic abuse, we don’t have the self-belief or courage to take steps to leave, so the thought of pressure from family and friends to do so is reason in itself to stay silent.
So how does that silence get broken? Wakefield advises that ‘we make ourselves available to listen, understand, support and speak’. “We have the difficult conversations – with our families, friends, colleagues and communities. But most importantly, we reserve judgment. Judgement is not our role in this. Judgment – or even perceived judgment – blocks trust and leaves silence as the only alternative. That, as we are seeing, is too dangerous.”
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