ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 03, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40

Nurturing change

By Smriti Daniel

Aretha said it best when she sang "R-E-S-P-E-C-T." As I recall, all she wanted was just a little bit.

It makes me wonder – what do I most want as a woman? Even beyond that, what does it mean to be female in the 21 st century? We are no longer second-class citizens – we have the right to vote, to own property, earn, and sign a contract.

We have the protection of the law and we stand on equal ground with the men in our lives – our opinions, and our choices are deemed worthy of the same respect given to the opinions and choices of men at least in theory.

On the other hand, violence against women is still rampant. Simply walking down a road seems invitation enough for the kind of comments that begin with a sly 'nangi…' and move on to things that no man should say to his sister. Young women are still pressured into marriages they don't want or forced to stop working or studying. Women who've been raped are still perceived as tainted, while those who say "no," to violent men still get slapped around or have acid thrown in their faces. The list is as long as it is depressing and though the tide may be turning, it is excruciatingly slow, and frustratingly, women's liberation is still very far from being a universal reality.

To mark International Women's Rights Day (March 8) the Mirror Magazine spoke with counsellors and lawyers Udeni Thewarapperuwa, Nandini Patabadhege and Dilrukshi De Alwis from the NGO Women In Need about how young women face, cope with and overcome abuse in Sri Lanka today.

The people we love, live and learn from remain one of the biggest influences of our lives and not always in a good way. Domestic violence is an ugly word, and numerous Sri Lankan women face it at some point in their lives. While slapping, punching and beating is common, physical violence against women also seems to have stepped up in intensity, reveals Udeni, explaining that more cases of acid throwing and serious battering (including broken limbs) seem to be coming to the attention of the authorities.
It's important to understand that this violence doesn't restrict itself to the poor, uneducated or old – far from it. Even more importantly – it doesn't happen because you "asked for it" in some way. Abused women are called 'victims' for good reason. What makes it so much worse is that abuse is something you can get used to and even come to believe you deserve. Women who are trapped in such abusive cycles find it very difficult to step away, says Udeni. Dilrukshi adds that most women wait until the situation is totally unbearable before they seek help from places like WIN. That husbands, boyfriends, fathers, uncles, grandfathers and even sons may subject a woman to domestic abuse is not entirely unsurprising, but that sometimes women also abuse women is.

Often, abusive relationships form so gradually, and take such thorough advantage of your vulnerabilities that it takes something really traumatic to pull you out of it. Ruwani* (24) was 16 when she first became involved with an 18-year-old guy called Amal*. She describes her relationship with him as "a nightmare," but one that developed very gradually. Amal was initially loving but demanding, often suggesting that Ruwani do something – say not wear short tops or meet such and such a friend – for her own "good." Ruwani would agree more often than not. However, as time went by Amal's ideas on what she could and could not do became even more demanding – putting her into conflict with her family. When she "disobeyed" Amal, there would be terrible fights.

"He would just keep calling me. At first, he would never speak up… but I knew it was him. After maybe five blank calls, he would start speaking, calling me names and threatening to hurt me or my family," she says describing the frightening sessions. Finally, he would "forgive" her, but only after she broke down and promised to make it up to him. In the meantime, she and Amal had already established an intimate relationship, and since he refused to use protection she became pregnant. Amal told Ruwani to get an abortion, and not knowing what else to do – she did. But that decided her fate, and she finally resolved to break it off. Even then, she needed all the help she could get from a cousellor, friends and family to ensure Amal stayed away.

Relationships are hard enough as it is. They require compromise and commitment. But how much is too much? Excessive possessiveness and jealousy are warning signs, says Dilrukshi, stressing that if a relationship is already difficult, committing oneself to the long haul is not a good idea. "Many girls think that he'll be different after they sign the certificate," she says, explaining that that is just wishful thinking. Relationships need mutual respect and support to survive. If it isn't working, if you're continuously feeling bad about yourself, and if you are being abused physically– step away and consider what you really want. Don't allow yourself to believe you deserve to be hit and belittled – you don't.

Abuse is not always a cut and dried case of battering. As in Ruwani's case, abuse can take many forms. Emotional abuse, for instance, includes all attempts to minimise the victim's concerns, and to make them feel bad. Humiliating someone in front of other people, family and friends is a common form of emotional abuse. Such abuse relies on isolating the victim – by preventing them from seeking help from family and friends and controlling a victim's movements entirely. Such "social" abuse can be as devastating as regular beatings and even more harmful to your self-esteem.

It's natural when you find yourself in such a situation to feel hopeless, anxious, guilty, and ashamed. Especially if you can't share your problem with your family or get support, the whole experience can be terrifying. The truth is, getting help takes a lot of courage. Taking responsibility for yourself and your well-being is your best option, says Nandini. Until you do that, until you reach out, no one can help you.

You need not fear that a counsellor will force you to leave your partner. Even if your choice is to stay in the relationship and to try and make it work, that's ok. The key word here is, "choice."

But actually living in a long–term abusive relationship is on the extreme end of the scale. Many young women sense something wrong at the very beginning of a relationship but do not do anything about it. Perhaps they believe it will stop or perhaps this is the way things are in their own homes. The boys themselves also learn from those around them – be it courtesy or violence. Strangely enough, it takes real courage sometimes to do the right thing and be true to what you believe. Even if it is as simple as making your stance clear to the creep who's trying to rub against you in the bus. (Do that and he'll think twice about trying that stunt again, says Udeni.) That having been said, a little forethought and planning is never a waste of time. When it comes to violence, in many cases prevention is better than cure, Nadini explains, adding that a firm, but polite, "no," one that doesn't bruise the ego – is often called for. For instance, when you are invited to someplace that you know is unsafe, or asked to do something that you know is risky, think about it first. Wanting to have fun or be accepted now, could just lead to a whole lot of bother later. At the heart of making the right decisions is really discovering who you are, says Udeni. Dilrukshi adds that it is essential to have a sense of self and to be as independent as you can. Working (even if it is only for a few hours a week), studying, cultivating your own interests and circle of friends can make a world of difference to how you cope. Try being anchored in yourself.

You must choose to protect yourself, knowing that it may be difficult, but that if don't you're putting yourself in grave danger. Remaining passive and accepting will only allow the situation to deteriorate. Udeni reveals that many women are seriously injured and even murdered by their abusers. If you're in a difficult situation, places like WIN (Hotline no: 4718585) offer counselling, guarantee your privacy and will support you through whatever decision you make. The thing to remember is that there is help, and that you have a choice. The choices, rights and opportunities that we take for granted as modern women, weren't won easily. We have struggled and strived over several generations and continue to do so. But if there's one thing I'm certain of it's this – you and I are choosing the future everyday. Man or woman – every generation decides what it will allow and nurture. Will you allow yourself to be abused? Made smaller, demeaned or hurt? Will you stand aside while this happens to someone else? Every individual shapes the future with the choices they make and the choices they respect... and this? This is your time to make a difference.

*Names have been changed

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.