On November 25, 2021, the 22nd International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women will be observed to commemorate the assassination of the Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic in 1960. The sisters were brutally murdered by the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, for their anti-regime activism. The sisters are now regarded as national martyrs since their deaths are credited for propelling the fall of the regime.
However, violence against women takes many forms — physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, etc. Nor is it inflicted only by strangers in the dark of the night. Rather, there are many multifaceted ways in which women might be getting abused. Most women are abused by someone they know or are in a relationship with.
In Pakistan, recent headlines have highlighted the use of physical and sexual violence against women in public and private spaces. Perpetrators range from complete strangers, to husbands and brothers, all indignantly hurting a woman who, a lot of the time, only committed the crime of being born a woman. However, many people continue to hold the victim responsible for the crime, perpetuating harmful myths that only make the problem worse. The other forms of violence are most often not even considered as such, much less reported.
Knowledge is power and the first step towards dealing with any societal issue and so understanding violence is the most crucial step. Let us look at some common myths about violence against women and their veracity.
Myth 1: Only Men Commit Violence against Women
Both men and women can be abusers and victims. Not all abusers are men and it is possible for women to be abusing other women. There is no perfect abuser or perfect victim. Anyone regardless of gender, race or economic status can be a victim, or an abuser.
Myth 2: Violence against Women Occurs Because They are Physically Weak
As already discussed, abuse and violence against women does not need to involve physical or sexual violence. If physical weakness were the basis then it would only be these two forms of abuse. Abuse is mostly about the perpetrators' need for power and control propelled by gender norms in society that allow them to do so.
Myth 3: The Woman Must Have Done Something to Initiate it
Victim blaming is a huge hindrance for victims of abuse in their fight for justice. This is rampant all across the world. It is common to imply that the victim may have been asking for it through their actions, or by simply not leaving the situation or fighting back. However, there is no excuse to commit violence against anyone — no matter their clothes or their actions. Moreover, many victims experience a freezing response during the attack, which is a biologically similar defence mechanism to a fight or flight response, and our bodies' way of ‘playing dead’ so the attacker will leave. Moreover, because of the web of different forms of violence, most people in abusive relationships may not be able to leave due to fear of safety, fear of retaliation or lack of financial security, or simply because a particular form of abuse might be normalized in their circle.
Myth 4: Violence is Only Physical
Physical violence (hitting, pushing, slapping, etc.) is just one form of violence against women. Other forms of abuse include emotional, psychological, sexual, and financial abuse. These forms of abuse can occur without anyone ever raising their hand even though usually an abuser may use multiple methods to control a victim.
Name-calling, yelling, public humiliation, threats, monitoring whereabouts and outbursts, etc., are all signs of a psychologically abusive relationship. Whilst there is an overlap between psychological and emotional abuse, emotionally abusive people will employ tactics such as isolating a woman from her loved ones, withholding affection, and shutting down communication among other things. Financial abuse, on the other hand, rarely occurs alone and is usually coupled with other forms of abuse. The abuser restricts the victim’s financial independence through various ways. For example, they may simply not allow a woman to work or when they do allow her to work, they may confiscate her paychecks, steal or borrow her money, ruin her credit history or expect her to pay for their bills.
Physical violence is the only form of abuse that presents direct physical evidence but rarely occurs alone and is usually an escalation from other forms of abuse. Looking out for the signs of mental, emotional and financial abuse can serve as important indicators of a physically abusive partner. However, all abuse is abuse and just because one is not black and blue, does not mean that she is not a victim worthy of living a better life.
Myth 5: Violence Occurs In the Dark of the Night by Strangers
The myth that violence, especially sexual violence, occurs in dark alleyways in the middle of the night is perhaps the most dangerous myth about abuse. Most rape victims know their attackers whilst only a small percentage of women are attacked by strangers. When children are sexually abused by someone, the rates are even higher with up to 90% knowing their attacker. Most abuse actually occurs at the hands of individuals who the victim already trusts and is around, such as family members, spouses, and trusted friends or acquaintances. Thus, while violence from a stranger is possible, it is more likely to come from someone a woman know.
Myth 6: There is Nothing We Can Do to Stop Violence against Women
We all have a role to play against the prevalence of abuse against women. How we respond as bystanders can have a huge impact on solving or exacerbating the problem. Many victims never report abuse because of the fear of shaming or victim blaming, both phenomena that we as a society perpetuate. Moreover, it is we as a society who look the other way and make abusers feel like they can get away with sometimes even public outbursts of violence, and it is we who perpetuate some of the harmful myths highlighted above.
There is no easy way to eradicate violence against women, however, educating ourselves and people around us about harmful gender stereotypes, victim blaming and shaming are the some of the ways we can make our society a safer place for all. A shift in societal understanding of what constitutes violence and change in attitudes of normalizing some forms of control that comprise violence is imperative if we want to eradicate the scourge of violence against women. Policy and legislation can only work if there is adequate knowledge about and appreciation of the problem, so, let us become more aware this November 25. HH
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