Ten! That is the average number of times a survivor of domestic violence leaves before she stays away for good. Whatever the season, maybe hope, or love, or helplessness, she will leave him and go back to him about 10 times before she is empowered enough to be on her own. The average number of times that a woman leaves before she stays away for good proves that the journey towards safety is tough. Abused women must first overcome the daily internal battle to leave or to stay before they can overcome the battle against their abuser.
According to Claire O’Neill, project manager at Amber Women’s Refuge in Kilkenny Ireland, the survivor’s journey - mindset, vulnerability, and strength – differs for every woman. Some leave their abusive relationships at the first point of abuse, while others leave after many years. The differences in the emotional, financial, and social resources that are available to them create different outcomes. Claire also highlighted that women will leave for good when they realise that it is too dangerous for them to stay. However, the idea of “too dangerous” is subjective and is dependent on the type and severity of abuse they are experiencing. This is especially problematic because it classifies abuse into acceptable abuse and dangerous abuse, yet any form of abuse is inherently dangerous. Further, women in abusive relationships may become so accustomed to abuse that they miscalculate the danger in their relationships and end up being seriously harmed or even killed by their abusive partners.
Black females, especially those from very traditional societies, are socialized to accept and expect abuse, by older women who have experienced it. These women pass down teachings like, “He does not love you if he does not hit you,” which glorifies the abuse and qualifies it as an expression of love. Women who hold this belief for most of their lives are more likely to stay longer and therefore are at a higher risk of femicide. On the other hand, a leading factor for women leaving is the threat to their children who face imminent danger. However, even then they weigh the impact of leaving and its potential to disrupt their children’s lives. Another internal battle the woman must win before she can win against her abuser.
As previously mentioned, victims of abuse can leave and go back to their abusive relationships several times before they leave for good. Others use shelters as a “resting” place as they wait for their partners to cool off. Shelters are aware of this and as such they offer supports according to the women’s needs. Apart from her inner conflict, a woman experiencing abuse is also likely to encounter conflict with her family and friends who feel leaving her abuser is an easy decision to make. Her apparent indecisiveness may leave her isolated with nowhere to go when she finally decides to leave for good. Friends and family that are emotionally invested in the abuse experience burnout. Remarks like “Ah! Leave her! She seems to enjoy the beatings because she keeps on going back,” and “We have given up,” and even “Never help an abused woman because she will get you into trouble with her partner when she goes back.” The reality is watching a family member suffer abuse is painful and some withdraw from offering support because they cannot tolerate their loved one in so much pain.
There is a stigma attached to women’s shelters. The women who go there are viewed as victims or weak; and their dependence on the social welfare system while they try to regain their lives may be viewed as a drain to society. The stigma makes it difficult to make that decision to leave for good; and as Claire states, the lack of alternative accommodation prevents women is another barrier to safety.
Amber Women’s Refuge, as a haven of hope for women fleeing abusive relationships, is open to people from all demographics, serving familial and individual needs. Claire highlighted that the shelter offers a safe place for the women to stop and think, clear their heads, and see things from a distance whiling receiving clear and concise information. Women and their children are supported in getting welfare payments; medical interventions; child protection and referrals; applications to social housing; legal information; counselling and group therapy; court accompaniment, as well as other supports. This helps the women see the possibilities of an abuse-free life. It also helps them see their power in relation to the abuse they are experiencing.
Mental health care is a necessity in cases of abuse. According to Christine Murray, a domestic violence researcher and associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, talk therapy, provided by most shelters, is a necessary transforming tool as it expands the women’s views of life and helps them see themselves detached from their oppressive environments and beyond their abuse. It also helps them learn that their abuse does not define them, which is vital in being a survivor. The process of healing and restoration differs for survivors. Nevertheless, a care plan is devised with each woman, beginning with a needs assessment and goal setting to achieved the desired result.
Through shelters like Amber, women are empowered to survive domestic abuse and live to see better days. Service providers at these shelters get up every day to fight for women who are in toxic relationships. They need support from governments so that they can continue to open their hands. Authorities must ensure these havens are well resourced so they can elevate the provision of services to more women and there children. The general public can also support them through donations and volunteering.
There is a huge need for shelters in all African countries and other developing nations. This need is fueled by the high prevalence of gender-based violence propagated by cultural patriarchal beliefs that also create a barrier against the establishment and usage of shelters. In these societies leaving one’s marriage is a failure on the woman’s part regardless of the threat to her life and her children’s. Also, seeking help from people who are not family is frowned upon. In some cultures, a “good” wife is expected to seek help from the husband’s family. Patriarchy hurts women daily, it traps them in dangerous and untenable situations and convinces them that they can never leave. That is why more shelters should be built in these countries, to create a safe place for them when they finally go against everything they have been taught by fleeing from their abusive relationships.
Written by Motlatsi Mogorosi and Tsitsi Shava.