I remember before starting my work in the field of gender based violence and domestic abuse how much I was afraid of it and from what it meant. I had many ideas about the status of women in our community that were proven later to be completely false. I guess my ignorance was a good sign of not having experienced domestic violence or witnessed abuse directly growing up. But for those who experience the risk of gender based violence on a daily basis, the reality is much more complicated. Here are some myths that I discovered, often through conducting trainings and awareness raising sessions that were prevalent among many that I wanted to share with you.
1. Everyone is familiar with abuse
You may be surprised to know that not everyone defines abuse in the same way. Depending on the backgrounds of who you may be speaking to, abuse can mean very different things. From my time conducting awareness sessions on gender based violence with refugee women, I found that many considered marital rape and physical violence, for example, to be one of the husband’s rights, with some even casually mentioning that “we all get hit every day” and that it is part of any normal relationship between a wife and her husband. Some women also engage frequently in blaming the wife for any abuse she may face stating that some women need a “beating” sometimes to confirm and submit to their traditional roles as homemakers. Also, in some cultures, instances of child marriage and denial of basic resources or neglect is encouraged and expected. It is important to note though, that women who hold these views often are not aware that their rights are being violated and do not see any issues with being subjected to abuse. What social workers try to do is help women recognize their fundamental rights and to make them aware of all the types of gender based violence that women around the world are subjected to, regardless of culture, religion and any other identifying labels. Women can then be made aware of access to further information or support from a counselor or other service providers to further encourage their empowerment and help-seeking.
2. Admitting into a shelter and leaving the intimate partner violent relationship is considered the best option for survivors
Although it may seem like common sense to try and keep women and girls who are vulnerable to abuse and are at risk from attacks as far away from perpetrators as possible in a shelter or safe space. It may also make sense since we know too well that gender based violence occurs most commonly in intimate partner relationships especially when the perpetrator happens to be living with the survivor. However, the decision to move to a shelter is not always a viable option for women and can often complicate her situation further. Women sometimes have to make a difficult decision to move to a shelter and keep their children at home. This often sets them up for some emotional abuse and threats aimed at hurting the children from the perpetrator. Although we tend to think that once a woman is in a shelter, she is no longer in contact with her abuser. However, we have seen cases where some abusers try, and sometimes succeed, at sending the message they want to the survivor and some even access her location through gaining the sympathy of the survivor’s closest trusted friends and family. As a social worker working with a survivor of gender based violence, we also cannot assume that the abused has family support for her decision to leave an abusive relationship. In some cultures where abuse in normalized, the mere mention of any type of violence by the husband is normally justified and could be met with advice from mothers/mother-in-laws to “hang in there”, “we’ve all been there” and other guidance on how to avoid triggering the violence from the husband. This rhetoric puts a great deal of women in fear that if they make the decision to leave their husbands, that this may cause their families to abandon them and not support their decision. To help women who are survivors of domestic violence, we must help her navigate her risks and understand the positives and negatives of all her options in an informed way that respects her decision to leave or remain in the relationship. On another note, women who are not earning income from an independent job might have to face some economical struggles that may put them at risk of sexual exploitation and abuse while searching for a solid income to sustain themselves if they choose to leave the shelter or if the shelter option is no longer valid as it may be temporary in some countries.
3. Disclosure is easiest part of seeking support
Identifying abuse is difficult and recognizing and accepting that the situation is not under control is not an easy process. In intimate partner relationships, the abuser usually after an outburst of violence will begin to apologize and make promises to end the violence and explain that he could not control his anger and that the survivor was the one who triggered him to do what he did. This causes survivors in many instances to fall into denial of abuse and self-blame and many will feel as if they are walking on glass everyday trying to avoid anything that may cause any new incidents. The combined feelings of denial, self-blame and fear make recognizing abuse very difficult. To make things even more complicated, women who have undergone abuse on a long term basis begin to experience learned helplessness. This phenomenon can even trigger the change of brain structures to begin to lose some ability to process the parts responsible for logical reasoning and to cause an enlargement of the structure responsible for emotional sensitivity. This results in feelings of being trapped and feeling no hope for being able to escape, despite some women often possessing the full capability financially and resourcefully to leave an abusive relationship. Add to that, once she recognizes abuse and chooses to seek help, she must then face the difficult decision to trust someone to safely disclose the abuse to. If she finds that this person is not encouraging and/or begins to make decisions on her behalf, she may choose to withdraw from any support and never disclose to anyone again. To assist women in this difficult time, we must ensure confidentiality, explain that the violence is not her fault and that she has the right to access help and to give her lots of time to develop trust in order to feel comfortable disclosing and seeking the help she needs.
4. Women who have escaped violent relationships are now safe
“She got a divorce. She is safe now”. Divorce and escape of violent situations even when backed with legal and police support does not necessarily mean that the violence has ended for the survivor. We know of many instances where women with children who share custody with the perpetrator must face emotional abuse and threats in an indirect way on a continuous basis. There are multiple avenues for a perpetrator with terrible intentions to find a way to continue imposing power in any means possible. Women in this situation must be empowered to understand that the perpetrator’s threats are mostly just empty talk and she must be supported to formulate a solid safety plan with numbers and people who can support her in any time of need if she needs it. Abused women are very aware of the dangerous situation they are in and need to be listened to and supported when coming up with ways to stay safe. They are the most aware of how to navigate their risks and keep themselves safe and we must ally with them to encourage them to stay as far away from the violence as possible.
5. Poor women and Muslim women are the most vulnerable to gender violence
Gender based violence in all its forms has no identity. It is prevalent in all societies and cross cuts race, social status, race, religion, culture and background. It is a common myth to label all Muslim women as disempowered, for example, but this is only a racist assumption that should be discouraged and the statistics prove how common and prevalent gender based violence really is around the world. Sadly, it can happen to anyone anywhere.
It is important to recognize that gender based violence is made up of many factors and that the survivors always knows best. As allies, supporters, feminists, or services providers, we must never impose our standards, ideals or solutions on them or exercise power over anyone facing abuse. Survivors of gender based violence are free to choose the option that work best for them and they should receive full confidentiality, information about services that are available and any psychological support that we can provide.