Violence Against Women: This is my story

Two months ago I sat for my first year final exams at the Open University of Sri Lanka. Last month’s edition of the Hi Magazine showcased 3 pages of clothes from designer K.T Brown – modelled by me. And in December, I will be on Art TV – as a contestant for the Super Model of Asia Pacific 2011. I suffer from no grandiose illusions about myself. I am no super model. I am extremely uncomfortable in front of the camera and at age 26 have only just begun studying for my degree. Yet, every one of these steps is a huge achievement for me, for just over three years ago I was trapped in an abusive marriage. It was a marriage  that wore down every shred of confidence I ever owned – confidence I have struggled to take control of and own ever since.

It has never been easy for me to speak of what took place during those 5 years I was married, I don’t think I ever fully have. I mean to now, because I feel that my story, or some part of it, may resonate with someone out there – someone who may still be ignorant of her rights. It was youthful folly that led me to marry at the age of 18. It was ignorance that held me trapped for five years in marriage to a man who didn’t recognise me as an equal – a man who reflected attitudes and actions no different to many other men here in Sri Lanka. Don’t get me wrong – I am no feminist. I see no reason to burn the bra when all one needs to do is not wear it. I can only attest to what is true for me and to what is my reality.

I was recently at an event at which a Buddhist priest spoke. He told the audience that he ran a pre-school in Kalmunai and how he loved working with children. He mentioned that he was brought up in a Home for destitute children and said that when he saw children ‘ mahath dukak mata athivenava’ (a great sadness comes over me). It is this same ‘mahath duka’ I feel when I see women living lives they should not have to live. Sadness and anger. Anger at a system that makes it so hard for a woman to stand up for her rights, a system that doesn’t protect women, a system that discriminates against a woman and a system that casually accepts as normal all abuse against women.

I know what it is like to be beaten for having an opinion, beaten for answering back, beaten because he didn’t like what you just said, beaten because he was drunk, beaten because you felt you had rights and asked for them, beaten because you had values and you stood up for them, beaten because he felt you didn’t respect him. I have been beaten for less. I know what it is like to be told you don’t amount to anything, that you have nothing, that your parents are nothing, that you came from nowhere and that you will never amount to anything.

I know what it is like to believe these lies.

I know what it is like to stand waiting at a Police Station to make an entry (because my mother had the sense to push me to) and have the police laugh in your direction, look at you sneeringly and make you feel like it is you who is in the wrong. I know what it is like to stand there alone, holding a crying child, scarlet-cheeked and ashamed, like scores of other Sri Lankan women who have undergone a similar fate.  I know what it is like to want to leave an abusive man, but be too afraid to. I know what it’s like to feel like it is your responsibility to stay, for the sake of your child – even if you learn later that he has the bigger responsibility to treat his wife, the mother of his child, right.

I know what it is like to be locked out of the house, in the middle of the night, because he felt he could do that to you and to be crouching in fear and shaking with tears. I know what it is like when all the adults that surround you tell you that time will heal all wounds, or that he will change with time, or that you should be patient, when all you really want is for the abuse to stop. How many other women are in the same predicament today? How many women are being advised to be patient, to ‘bow’ their heads, to stay for the sake of the children? How many are being told to be careful with what they say to their husbands, to refrain from angering him, to pray, to go to church, to write in a diary, to ask forgiveness for sin, to put their lives right in the sight of God, to make pujas? How many women are – in addition to the beating they are getting from their husbands – beating themselves up by taking blame and responsibility for wrongs that are not theirs? How many women carry this guilt with them their entire life? And how many know that they don’t have to?

There is serious dearth of education and mainstream conversation on the topic of violence against women. And we that refuse to speak only contribute to it. Domestic violence is portrayed in images of black and white, in symbols and signage – but why do those of us with a voice not speak? We the middle and upper English speaking classes like to comfort ourselves with the idea that violence against women is a distant reality affecting only the uneducated and poorer classes. However, the harsh truth is that violence against women exists everywhere, in every class and in most homes. Yet many of us hide behind the cloak of shame and refuse to speak.

Young men reading this, ask yourselves if you have not seen your father make your mother cry, or your father hit your mother. Young women, ask yourselves whether, if you do not throw yourselves into a social life that keeps you away from home for as long as possible, you can deal with the way your mother lives or at how abusive the father you love can be to her? Yes, there are exceptions, but I speak not for them or of them, I speak for all those of you in the system – being abused now, today, to all those of you watching someone else being abused now, today. I speak even to men who speak of equality for the sexes and yet shun the idea of counselling, couple therapy, anger management and a host of other tools that can be used to create an equal platform that can be the foundation for the relationship you share with you partner. I speak to you – should you too not speak up? Should not this kind of behaviour and attitudes be labelled with a clear NO?

How many mothers stay in unhappy marriages for the sakes of their children and bring up children that can’t discern between the right and the wrong they see happening in their homes? How many women tell their sons that they must treat women right and then allow their husbands to walk all over them? Unless there is some bravery, some balls on the side of the women themselves, this cycle of abuse will continue. Sons will grow up to mistreat their women (whatever their true intentions may be) and daughters will grow up vowing never to marry. Marriages will fail and children (like mine) will have broken homes. But the question worth asking is – how much less broken is a home with an abusive father to a home in which there is no father at all? Not much less.

I am only coming out with parts of my story because I am today, older, wiser, stronger. But there must be more conversation, more acceptance, more support much less tolerance for domestic violence. Sri Lanka has a long way to go. The system of justice is marked with delays, administrative failures, bribery and corruption. It has been three years since my marriage ended and I am yet to get the justice I seek. The legal system needs to strengthen and we need lawyers with integrity – lawyers that will demand an end to the bribery and corruption that goes on within the courts. We need counsellors that will counsel with a conscience, we need women to understand that an education can get them a job that can give them financial independence. We need trustworthy childcare systems and a trustworthy police force. Yes, we are a long way away from it all.

But today, I spoke up. And tomorrow I hope you will. And maybe the day after tomorrow more people will speak up and in the next generation our children will benefit from it.

Being a young single mother in this country hasn’t been easy. I feel judged all the time! Not having a man ensures that I am an easy target to three-wheel drivers, baas’s, unscrupulous tuition teachers, dirty policemen, harsh neighbours, school principals – the whole lot. I have come to realise that the hardest thing a single woman or a single mother faces is social stigmatisation.

And yet, when I wake up in the morning and I know the day is my own, that the goals I have set are my own, that all achievements are my own, that the decisions I make are my own, and that my son is my own, I am happy.

###

This is an edited version of an essay that first appeared in 16 Days Campaign Blog, a platform curated by the Women and Media Collective.

  • Prabu

    WOW! Thank you for sharing this! This is powerful, your story is and your life is! I sincerely hope and pray that more women like you feel courageous enough to end violence against them; it is the only hope people like I have as we work and advocate ending violence against women and paving the way for a society where women are equal!

  • http://Www.bishansworld.posterous.com Bishan

    Thanks for sharing your story Roel, and I am sorry for what you have gone through. It saddens me
    to know of this unjust inequality and that we, as members of a society (both in Sri Lanka and abroad) are part of this problem of injustice between the sexes.

    At the same time it heartens me to know that we are also part of the solution. Articles like this with the courage to speak the truth as one sees it are part of the process that is necessary to put an end to violence and injustice (two birds of the same feather), I wouldn’t count on the legal systems alone to do this job, although they could be fostered to do so.

    Only love, truth, honesty and courage will do this. Thanks for your courage and I hope it is part of a chain reaction for societal change in a positive and peaceful direction that I believe is already on the way – whether we like it or not. Best Wishes for 2012 and a brighter future for us all!

    Peace out – Bishan :)

  • Senani

    Most of the women in Sri Lanka are going through the same thing. I personally have many friends who go through the same thing who are scared to stand up for themselves. I am so proud to hear that you as a Sri Lankan stood up for yourself and made a good example. I am too married and hardly surviving not because of being abused by husband but being mentally abused by the mother in law, I have been told by many that we should just be silent but there are limits we could also take which I had made it clear to my husband because one day I might burst out in all anger. I hope someone stand up and made a clear statement to all the mother in laws out there that coming in between their sons marriage will end their sons family and that it would be their fault to see their own sons family life tearing in to pieces.

    I am so glad that you have taken a step ahead and I wish you and your son a great year and glorious life ahead

  • luxmy

    Roel
    Sorry for all you had to go through.
    Thanks for sharing – you’re a courageous woman and you’re sure to succeed in most of your ”personal” goals and this article will surely have an effect in the society. All of us in the society have a duty to multiply that effect.

  • kumar

    There should be zero tolerance to abuse specially by religious leaders. Patience and prayer can be prescribed for incompatibility and may be even for insensitivity but never for inhumane behavior.It requires immediate separation and then help to the victim first and then the perpetrator. Not help first and then if it does not work out separation.Our women are too precious for any bit of their personhood to be torn by physical abuse .Religous leaders please don’t ignore physical abuse anymore.

  • http://yahoo Sandy

    Thank you for sharing your story Roel..it saddens me to think of what

    Thank you for sharing your story Roel – it saddens me to think of all what you’ve been through, but so glad you are out of it now.
    The ‘macho’ mind set here is revolting to say the least.

    A man is sometimes called a ‘Gentleman’- a gentle – man’.
    That’s what he’s supposed to be.

  • http://www.shaadhamid.com/ Shaad Hamid

    I admire your courage in expressing your feelings as I understand it must be quite hard to revisit in your mind those dark days. You have done exceptionally well for yourself and your story will no doubt inspire other women to take charge of their lives too. I am saddened that even in this day and age, there are people who are ignorant. For my part, I will take your message to as many people I could influence.

  • Bav

    Sorry to hear this story. There are millions of women suffer in the hands of men in this world daily.
    Imagine the lives of 90,000 Tamil young widows in the North and East militarised Sri Lanka!!!!

  • Thrishantha

    I guess domestic violence like any other oppressive violence in the society stem from the attitude of one party/group that they have some special right to rule the other. However, in this particular story, it looks like they married after an affair and found the married life so misserable. I feel that this huge difference between two phases of the life of two individuals come from the things they take for granted in married life that they took as challenges in the romantic pre-married life. A boy would patiently wait for few hours in a bus stop till the girl comes. He may even love to see the girl wearing a sexy dress, or to hear the girl saying very childish stories. This flips after marrying because the society programs a man to expect subservient behavior from a wife. Things they enjoyed as challenges collapses to things they take for granted that a married woman shouldn’t do. Though we often look down upon the single romantic life of Western societies, those couples tend to see a much more realistic picture of a life together than the supperficial and cosmatic picture most South Asian couples see. However, South Asian marriages may look more stable due to lack of choices for women after marrying, and the huge social pressure to show off as a stable couple. Often the woman becomes the internal shock absorber.

    Though Sri Lanka is far better than many South Asian societies in terms of gender equality, our women still do not have enough choices in difficult situations like these. There are enough predators in the law enforcement mechanism itself to further victimize these women. One day a soldier told me that he feels scared to think of death in the battlefield because he knows what happens to his wife when she goes to claim compensation. In his words, “I know what they will do to my widow starting from the three-wheeler drivers at the entrance”. Fortunately, I could convey this message to a decision maker and some corrective action were taken.

    So, I suggest that social studies departments of reputed local universities document this kind of stories and make firm recommendations to the Government and human rights organizations to set credible mechanisms in motion to protect women already in danger. The vulnerability of women is not confined to a particular class. Even in poor families, it is the women who volunteer to save the family economy by serving as housemaids in the middle east knowing the possibility of getting victimized inhumanly. Have we done anything credible to promote local tertiary education to empower these women to find safer and more dignified jobs? It is very easy to boast in the parliament that these women contribute mega $$$ to the local economy, but it takes a bit of more courage to go beyond financial figures to find a more dignified solution to this attitude of abusing the vulnerability of women.

  • Caryll Tozer

    To all who read this, WIN or Women In Need on Tickell Rd, was set up in 1987 to help women in real life abusive situations. Yes there are counsellors, legal and medical experts, to help all who call or walk in, so if you are in a similar situation, please get in touch.

    When I spoke up about the need for a center or refuge to help abused women in 1986 and 1987 onward, plenty of people sniggered. Well WIN is now 24 years old…. So yes, speaking up and having these conversations does make a difference.

  • myil selvan

    Great article Roel. Thanks for bringing out the hidden truth and Sri Lankan state institutions'(the police) lack of empathy and understanding. There are some similarities to what is happening in the Northeast to minorities. An almost entirely Sinhala army that has raped Thamil women and as forced others into prostitution in the Northeast.

    Articles of this nature can help to change the indifference of Sri Lankan society and the brutality of state institutions and stop state terror engulfing us. So thank you.

  • sabbe laban

    Abuse does take place in the developed world as well, but not the social stigmatization; not the apathy of the law enforcing authorities!

    As you say, “Sri Lanka has a long way to go…”

  • m

    Good luck, proud of your achievements.

  • Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam

    Roel,
    I admire your resilience and bravery to tell your plight and thus fight against brutal husbands. You have done a great service to women in SL and all countries. You have saved yourself and your son by getting out of the violent abusive marriage. Please continue to advocate for the rights of women and for the prosecution of violence against women within the walls of their home.

  • http://my.telegraph.co.uk/tusker/page/2/ R.A.Ratwatte

    Sure there should be zero tolerance but does this only happen to women ? Are there men out there who live with abusive wives ?

    A beating doesn’t have to be physical. A mental beating involving abusive words can resonate in your mind for even longer than the pain that physical abuse brings.

    To assume that this is only suffered by women is wrong.

  • Donald

    As an ‘Abused husband’, I have been through everything that you have faced. A short list would include my being locked out of the house frequently, being denied meals and a place to sleep, assault, constant verbal abuse, demanding ‘rent’ for myself and my son, false complaints to the police, preventing the child from going to school, etc. Being a trained martial artist, I have to keep quiet, because I don’t want to end up behind bars.

  • Renuka

    Most women do no speak in public about there bitter experiences of domestic violence on them. It is very courageous to speak out, therefore someone else with the same experience would do so.
    This is what happening with the women of our world. Apart from religion, race ,ethnicity and class this is what majority of women experiencing on the irony hands of narrow minded men. The truth is the so called equality has just been limited to the books and fairytale writers. The rights of women are still rejected by the so called society.

  • Niz

    Senani-

    Wow I was really sorry to hear that. But always remember, you have to take care of YOURSELF first. I personally live by the adage, a happy me will give a happy outcome for everyone. How can you contribute towards the stability of the marriage if you’re not happy yourself?

    Have you thought of having a frank discussion with your husband regarding this situation, saying you’re not happy in this marriage because of the MIL? because after all, that’s the truth, isn’t it? at least, you’ll get to hear his side of the story ( if he’s a reasonable person) and then you can work things out.

  • Burble0

    How often do we come across women admitting to begin the recipient of abuse: both physical and emotional. Well said roel.

    The fact that most women coming from cultures where there is male prominence, are the most vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing our culture or yet again other cultures.
    But the fact that our country is yearning for equality and hasn’t yet fully grasped it, is sad, which is why everyday at least 3 of 5 women are exposed to domestic violence: not forgetting the men who are victims of domestic violence as well.

    If we are are to pin point the flaws our system contains, and compromise with authorities..we could go on and on..

    The best way to make a statement is to voice your story..

    Make it known, let them know, what they ought to know.

  • sunila Mendis

    Domestic violence has become a catch word in society.It is now an Asian malady as women in the Western countries are empowered to take decisions and schools and Universities have degrees and diplomas in gender studies.So that they are aware of their rights .In Sri Lanka as in other Asian countries girls and boys are being socialised by their mothers differently .A lot of blame lies with mothers who treat their sons as demi gods. The best part of a meal goes to the son due to the false belief that a son needs more nourishment to regain their vitality when it should be the girl chid who will one day bear children who has to be well nourished. All ills in society be it drunkan husbands or sons,abusive husbands or child rapists all have social sanction from the public.”Boys are boys” they have the freedom to do whatever they wish.The girls on the other hand have to dress properly so as not to rouse the sexual desires of men.”sina nomsen dasan dakva” “Visakava wage haddenna” all these advise to girls disempower them rational and logical thinkig,arguments are not for women.A lot of responsibility lies with mothers who bring up children with preferential treatment for boys and slavery for girls and schools that socialise children have a major role to play in minimising domestic violence.Minister of Justice in the Austraian Government is a lesbian living with her partner she openly says.So are many high profile women.We in SL have a long way to go.

  • Pingback: How Hard is it to Admit Fault, Ambassador Wickramasuriya? | Kataclysmichaos