The first time I met an actual victim of sexual violence and knew it, hit me hard. I had studied education and all kinds of violence at university; I had volunteered at a women’s shelter for a short period of time (although all I can recall is my frustration with women going back to their husbands and the ‘no hierarchy’ delusion within the professional team); I quit my studies to become a self defence teacher. I knew what was going on in the world, and still, I was unprepared.
My son was only a few years old, and our au pair came home from her language class telling me about a young class mate who always wore sun glasses and lots of make-up and might be in a situation of violence. Should she help her or not? We discussed options and I offered my help should it be wanted.
A few days later I met a stunningly beautiful girl from Eastern Europe who stood in my hallway, tall and proud, and you could tell that she was not the one to be broken. Until the moment she took off her glasses only to reveal a fresh black eye. Her husband was hitting her regularly and she needed help to leave him as she had no right of residence apart from her right as his wife. Later on in the discussion she lowered her jeans and I saw exactly where he kicked her. I will never forget that picture. It was even worse than the black eye, as it was proof of something happening on a regular basis, not as a singular outburst of violence. This man thought he could treat her as shit because she depended on him. This woman was allowed to stay in my country as the possesion of a man but risked deportation when leaving him – although he was the perpetrator.
She had a long, hard journey in front of her. In the end, she found a new place to live, a good job and a new family while her ex-husband was convicted for raping and hitting her repeatedly.
6 things I learned along the way
I, however, learned a lot during the process. How blind we are because of the way we live. Everybody considers normal what one experiences every day. One day I asked her: “Why don’t you just go back home? When my husband hit me, I would run straight to my mom.” I learned that there are countries – right next door, not on some far away sub-continent – where divorced women or victims of rape have no chance of getting back into their society as respectable women whatsoever.
How important it is to have native speaking consultants. She was unable to tell me about the rape just because she had no word for it. It was very important to meet someone speaking her language so she could talk about all the nuances of her feelings and experiences. I started to learn the languages of the people I work with. Not because I wouldn’t think they should learn the language of the country they live in (of course they should) but to show my support. Plus, learning new languages helps the brain stay healty, and it impresses people pretty much
That violence can happen to everybody. Yes, there are people who become victims repeatedly, and there are traits perpetrators look for. But that is no guarantee that it never happens to you or me. The only ‘mistake’ this woman made was trusting the man she loved and moving to his home country with him. Where she knew nobody except his mother who helped her son and who called the woman who accused her precious baby of rape and assault, a slut and a whore. What if our au pair had turned her back on her class mate as so many others did?
That you can survive everything if you refuse to let someone break you. He hit her. He raped her. He called her names. He locked her up. He kicked her. But he never managed to destroy her will and her dignity. He didn’t even manage to destroy her trust in other people.
That you need help, smart help. She did manage to keep her dignity and trust partly because she had help from great people. Our au pair being considerate in the first place. Me being concerned with sexual violence and knowing exactly where to turn for professional help. A consultant, a lawyer and police, even a judge, who all where very clear about who was the victim and who was the perpetrator. Nobody ever suggested that she had her share of guilt in the situation because she was dumb or tempted her husband or whatever the idiot’s arguments sometimes are when women are raped.
That you learn some skills in life only to hope you will never need them. Self defence is definitely my number one on that list.
This article was originally posted on my new blog project Soulskin.news