Silence is the enabler of domestic abuse. Silence is informed by different drivers for different people

Understanding these drivers allows us to more empathetically and effectively support those affected and take appropriate steps to break the silence.

In August this year, well-known and loved businesswoman and philanthropist, Thandi Ndlovu, died in a car accident. At her funeral, her friends used the platform to speak of the domestic abuse she had suffered for years at the hands of her husband.

The tragedy is that it was only safe for the silence around her abuse to be broken after her death, when the threat to her was no longer real

The thought that this outwardly successful and supported woman had shouldered her pain, both physical and emotional, in complete isolation for years, is devastating, especially because we all know deep down that she actually represents thousands of women who deal with this every day.

As we grapple with this issue, it becomes clear that silence is the enabler that has allowed it to perpetuate to epidemic proportions. Breaking the silence is the foundational first step towards addressing the issue. But to do this, we need a deeper understanding of how silence became the prevailing – and socially endorsed – response to abuse.

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Silence is informed by different drivers for different people. For example, people who have never had personal exposure to abuse choose not to engage on the topic because from the outside it is black and white, and simply shouldn’t happen.

Conversations about abuse are avoided in favour of lighter and nicer topics, and when comment is called for from the ignorant, the response is that an abused person should just leave, and if she doesn’t, she’s to blame or even complicit.

For the abused, there are a number of factors that inform silence

At first, there’s denial. Denial happens when we refuse the notion that our situation is unhealthy and hold on to the dream that we bought into, hoping that the difficult parts will change. So we hush the alarm bells, distract ourselves and divert our thoughts.

Once we realise that our situation is unhealthy, there’s the pressure to uphold the outward impression of the dream, so the silence continues

It can be embarrassing as a seemingly strong and together person, to tell people how you are treated behind closed doors, and then to justify (mostly to the ignorant) having not taken steps to leave in the circumstances.

Then there’s shame

One of the hallmarks of abusive relationships is that the victim is made to believe wholeheartedly that they are the cause of the problem, that they deserve the abuse, and that if they just changed themselves it would go away. So much time and energy is directed towards fixing ourselves, and we avoid telling people about the abuse for shame around our believed role in it.

And then there’s love

Most abused people love – or at least loved – their abusers, and are very aware of the root of insecurity that triggers their abusive behaviour. Because of this, and also our hope that our abusers will heal and not need to act out in this way, we justify it, make excuses for it, and keep the details to ourselves.

Ultimately, our empathy reigns – we long for them to be healthy, feel whole and not need to project their pain onto us. Also, we don’t want our loved one (often the father of our children) to face legal action and suffer reputational damage, so we stick to the silence.

The Warrior Project: FREE legal helpline for victims of domestic abuse

The problem is that once we speak, we face outside pressure to leave and judgement if we don’t

Once we speak, we can no longer pretend that it isn’t happening. And after years of abuse, we don’t have the self-belief or courage to take steps to leave, so the thought of pressure from family and friends to do so is reason in itself to stay silent.

So how do we break the silence?

We make ourselves available to listen, understand and support. And we speak. We have the difficult conversations – with our families, friends, colleagues and communities.

But most importantly, we reserve judgement

Judgement is not our role in this. Judgement – or even perceived judgement – blocks trust and leaves silence as the only alternative. That, as we are seeing, is too dangerous.

About the author

Yvonne Wakefield is a legal entrepreneur, mother of three, optimist, feminist, and founder of The Warrior Project, an online portal of information and resources for victims of domestic abuse and gender-based violence (‘Warriors’). @thewarriorprojectsa #WarriorsStandUp

The Warrior Project is run by The Warrior Institute NPC 2019/364285/08. (PBO Registration pending)

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