In the first part of the Women's Voices series for the 16 Days 2017 campaign, Niamh Ní Dhomhnaill, an activist for improved services and awareness around issues of domestic and sexual abuse, writes about how speaking out about experiences of sexual and domestic violence can be a scary but life altering experience.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I didn’t know how bad it got for you, why didn’t you say something?”
Abuse and violence are often described as ‘unspeakable acts’ but who deemed them to be unspeakbale in the first place? I don’t think it was the people who had such horror enacted on them.
Silence can be broken in a myriad of ways
The silence around abuse is not necessarily because the person does not want to disclose. It is most likely because they feel they cannot say it. Holding abuse inside you, taking an oath of silence you never opted to, can pour out of you in a myriad of non-verbal, but not silent, toxic ways.
Sadly, we tend to pathologise some of these experiences: these outpourings of distress such as eating disorders, anxiety disorders, substance misuse and so on. Of course this is not everyone’s path but it is for many of us.
When, or if, that seal of silence breaks, it can feel like talking for the first time: the timbre of your voice sounding alien to even you, let alone the words you are saying. Words you never thought you would say and words you may struggle to see as appropriate to your experience. Because saying those words makes the nightmare irretrievably real and you don’t turn back once you have said it, which is a scary and potentially life-altering experience.
Supportive spaces help women speak up
We cannot expect people to be able to disclose, if we are not creating an environment that feels as supportive and as non-threatening, as possible. So if you have often wondered why some people wait weeks, years or lifetimes to disclose; it is worth considering the knee-jerk reactions of many, both publicily and privately, to those stories of abuse and violence we are aware of.
If those around you, personalities in media, and acquaintances, have passed judgment on stories, on peoples’ lives, that they have heard in news or social media, or disclosed in communities, without any knowlege or information on the parties involved, or the incidents in question; ask yourself, if something happened to you- would you feel comfortable to say ‘#metoo’?
Support through empowement
If a friend or relative discloses an experience of abuse to you, what is your role? It is a privilege to be trusted with someone’s vulnerability, but it is not for you to judge, to interrogate, or to disbelieve. If you want to ask a question- ask ‘What can I do?’ Empower that person, in a way that is comfortable for them. Each one of us will want to be supported in different ways but most certainly we all want support.
About Niamh: Niamh has written about her experience of intimate partner violence and has contributed to documentaries such as 'Unbreakable' and 'Asking for it'.
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