There’s a saying that if it’s too good to be true then it usually is. But what if it’s too bad to be true? What if something is so shockingly horrendous that it makes you stop thinking about anything else for a while? Does that mean it’s a lie as well? The numbers associated with domestic violence are quite staggering—and when my own sister revealed what she had been experiencing in her 20 years of marriage, it brought the reality of this menace right to my doorstep.
My sister’s statement—that it’s the scars you can’t see which take the longest to heal—shattered my image of her happy marriage. I remember feeling angry and helpless at the same time as I listened to her story. My sister was being systematically dehumanised and terrorised by someone I trusted—living in daily fear of her life. It angered and confused me. Why hadn’t she said anything? Why hadn’t she left this man who I considered a big brother? Why didn’t she call the police?
There was a time when sexual harassment was just simply accepted as “locker room talk” and “boys being boys,” but such behaviour nurtured a culture that desensitised men to the humiliation and fear that many women felt. Thankfully, as a society there has been a change in the dynamics, and misogynistic, loutish behaviour is for the most part no longer tolerated in the workplace or most public spaces. The global #MeToo movement has kept the public aware of what’s happening, and victims have a very public platform to cry out for help.
When your neighbour’s house is on fire…
The signs were promising that we were making progress as a society. But when I read recently that 85 per cent of Australian women have been sexually harassed, and 40 per cent of women continue to experience violence from their partner while temporarily separated, I realised that not nearly enough has changed. That every week a woman somewhere in Australia is murdered by her current or former partner, should be a reality check on our senses. All is not well in our communities. If there is now so much awareness, why are there still so many victims?
You see, it’s in the home where the problem mostly goes unchecked. Coupled with the fact that many of us do not wish to intervene in “other people’s business”, a climate is created where abusers feel empowered. The secretive nature of the crime means the police cannot act until a report is made. The menace isn’t always overt threats or acts of aggression, as was the case with my sister. Not all victims of domestic violence have visible scars, but if there are, taking the approach that it’s none of your concern is not the best way to handle things.
No-one would stand idly by and watch their neighbours’ house burn to the ground. Yet in cases of abuse, many choose to turn away for fear of recrimination and in most cases just plain ignorance about what to do. But if the statistics represent even the slightest modicum of truth, then speaking up can be lifesaving. And if we’re seeking to live out a Christian commitment, we need reminding that we are our “brother’s keeper”, even if that brother is the annoying, aggressive, unfriendly neighbour.
In situations where one has a good relationship with the victim or even the perpetrator, thoughtful and measured intervention is the first course of action. It won’t be easy. My sister had colleagues, friends and even fellow church members verbally and physically threatened when they attempted to intervene. But intervene you must, as this will have an immediate effect on the situation, allowing the victim time to assess the situation and hopefully recognise there is help available.
If there is evidence that a crime has been committed, notifying the police is very important. Their very involvement can reduce the probability of further incidents, allow for closer monitoring of the situation, ensure the safety of the victim, and of course impact the outcome of any potential criminal investigation.
When they say something, we must do something
If you are a survivor of domestic violence, or you are currently living in an abusive relationship, my advice is for you to seek immediate help and make plans to leave. Then contact local police about getting a restraining order. Having said that, there are usually circumstances that influence such a decision. You may have kids; you may think you have nowhere to go; you may be worried about your abuser following you and inflicting further abuse; and of course, there are the financial burdens that come with such a move. These are all valid concerns, but your first step begins with making the decision to seek help. (Contact details at end.)
Domestic violence has no place in our society. When the numbers cry murder and the abused among us feel like there is no haven for them, we are failing miserably. The most vulnerable are the ones we should be protecting. It takes courage to defy a lifetime of abuse, and for those who are too afraid to speak up for themselves, we should at least be brave enough to listen. When they say something, we must do something.
If you need help, contact Helpline to talk through your situation and find specialist services in your area.
Nigel Byng is a freelance writer based in West Palm Beach, Florida. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.