People who experience trauma often have lasting effects from it; anxiety, PTSD, depression, etc. The list is long and the ailments varying in degree from person to person. It doesn’t matter what caused the trauma when you are dealing with its effects; the trauma itself is not the problem anymore. It’s the way it has changed your life that becomes the issue. So many people suffer every day and the resources are drying up and the empathy is perfunctory; everyone has some advice to offer, but no one really gets it unless they are survivors, too.
I have had a shadow that has followed me since I was young. He is always there, just over my shoulder or standing in the darkness, watching me. Waiting for me. I never really knew why he was there, but sometimes his allure was so strong, I was tempted to follow him in to the darkness.
I know now he came to me after the first time I was sexually assaulted. I was a young girl at a home where my sister and I were cared for while my single father was at work.There were a dozen or so kids from ages 6 months to 14 years old who went to this caregiver and we were not well supervised. I was the oldest girl at this place and there were a couple boys a bit older than me. There were also boys in the neighbourhood who would come to play. It was on a hot, sunny day when all the kids were outside playing in the yard that I was lured to the front of the house by one of the boys. Two other boys, neighbourhood kids, were waiting. The boys held my arms, and pushed me to the ground. The other boy, who I thought was my friend, pulled down my shorts and fondled me. He put his fingers inside me. Then he held me while the other boys did the same. They laughed and teased and called me names as I cried. Eventually they let me go. I ran into the house to the bathroom downstairs (we were never allowed up in to the main part of the house) and locked the door. I hid in there for as long as I could. I cried and cried and wondered what I had done to make the boys want to hurt me. I was humiliated and full of shame; I knew it was my fault. I was so afraid that the babysitter would find out and and she would tell my dad…I would be in so much trouble if anyone found out what I had done. You see that? I blamed myself for the behaviour of those boys. They assaulted me and I felt I was to blame. It was the early 80s and Feminism was not something that even existed in my world.
I avoided the boys as best I could the rest of that day. I never told anyone what had happened. It wasn’t the last time I was assaulted by these boys and I lived with the shame, the confusion and anger. I turned it all on myself and searched for ways to appease my guilty conscience. And that is how Shadow Man came to me.
Shadow Man is the darkness, the sadness and shame that I cannot contain inside. He lurks around me, following me, reminding me that I am dirty, unworthy, loathsome and unloveable. He reminds me that I am alone, and that the only way to free myself of him is to join him in the darkness. There, I will find release from pain, a quietness.
He was a part of my life for years. I did everything I could to keep him at bay, but usually I resorted to self-destructive behaviours that really only fed him, and helped him grow stronger. As a young girl I became obsessive about keeping my room clean and in order. I tried to be perfect at school and at home and tried to stay out of the way of the older boys at the babysitters.I was anorexic in high school and college. I binge drank and experimented with drugs. I tried to be perfect, carefully doing my make up and hair every day to look like I was “pretty” and “normal”. Inside, I knew I was ugly, tarnished and unclean. Nothing I did chased Shadow Man away. I became angry, defiant and put on a facade of a strong, confident woman who said what needed to be said, did what needed to be done and had her shit together.
I suffered more trauma through my life; I was raped in high school and never reported it. I never told anyone about it until much later. I married a man who became abusive to me and my children in some of the most heinous ways; I still feel like it is unbelievable that it could have happened to me.
Shadow Man stayed with me my whole life, only leaving for a short period of time when I was and adult. I was working full time, things were quiet on the Family Court front and my kids and I were happy. I was happy, but He was still there. One day a friend of mine told me how you can tell a “spirit” to leave you alone, to go away. I was astonished; could I really do that? I suppose I wanted to believe that this Shadow Man was simply an unwanted entity who had attached itself to me. I followed my friend’s advice and I asked the Shadow Man what he wanted. I got no response that I could feel or understand. I told him he was unwelcome, that he had to leave me alone and never come back. To my surprise, he left. He was gone; I could not feel him anymore. I was so amazed and relieved!
Life was good and I was happy. I was as financially secure as I had ever been. My kids and I were in a good place and the Shadow Man became a memory.
And then my grandmother became ill and when I lost her, I felt like my whole world was crashing down. She was my best friend, my mentor, my hero. Without her I felt like I was disconnected, unstable, lost. I was exposed and Shadow Man found his way back to me; I welcomed him this time. I wanted to feel him near, to know he would be there when I was ready to fall in to the quiet, the dark and rest.
I know that I am not the only person who has experienced trauma in their lives and I know I am not the only one who battles this darkness. Trauma opens you up to it, allows it to come in to your life and haunt you. I have successfully resisted his allure many, many times, but there are still so many days when his darkness blots out the sun and swallows me. On those days, I allow myself to cry, to brood, to be angry. I allow myself to feel the pain that Shadow Man promises to take away. Some days the pain is overwhelming, the anxiety crippling. I will think that I cannot resist anymore, that I don’t even want to; I want the quiet, the peace. And then someone will remind me that I am a Survivor. A friend, my children, or my grandmother’s voice will whisper in my ear, “One foot in front of the other, Lass. Better days ahead.” So I allow myself to feel the sadness and anger and fear for a short time. I remind myself that I will survive it, as I have so many times before, and I will keep going. Shadow Man is here, he may always be, and I accept that. I have to find a way to live with this darkness and keep it at bay. I don’t know for how long, but today, I know that I win. And a win one day at a time is a good start.
Christmas is just days away, there is snow covering the ground and the air is cold. The malls and stores are full of people shopping for gifts for loved ones. The grocery stores are bustling as people buy food for the various parties they will be hosting or attending and, of course, their Christmas dinner. It is a busy time of year for most and the messages of, “Be grateful,” and “Give not receive,” are heard in media, social media and in conversation. It’s a time of joy and togetherness.
But not for everyone. For so many, Christmas is a time of sadness, a time of fear, a time of uncertainty. There are arguments made for both sides, but ask anyone who works in the field of violence against women and domestic violence, this time of year is more dangerous for women living with an abusive partner. There is a spike in domestic violence during any holiday, but Christmas seems to see the greatest spike, particularly in more rural communities. The added financial stress that comes with Christmas shopping and gift-giving and the increase in social activity and the extra expectations put on families to be “together” can often lead to increased tension levels, lower tolerance for frustration and an increase in violent episodes.
Often alcohol plays a huge part in the violence as well because people are more apt to be drinking during the holidays and we all know that alcohol influences your judgement and reduces your inhibitions. Couples will argue or fight without violence on a normal day, but put alcohol in the mix, so to speak, and you have a recipe for disaster. In a household that already is experiencing violence from an abuser, this increases the likelihood of a violent episode and may speed up the cycle of violence , ending the Honeymoon phase and accelerating the tension-building phase to put the family back in to the Crisis Phase more rapidly. Sometimes the Cycle of Violence is experienced many times during a stressful period, such as Christmas time, with each Crisis Phase escalating more and more. This is where women sustain very serious injuries or are even murdered at the hands of their partner.
In my own marriage, the holidays were a very stressful time. My husband was not a very social person and the expectation put on him by co-workers, our friends and family to attend parties caused him to feel pressure to behave in a way that was socially acceptable. No off-colour jokes, no inappropriate comments, no swearing at or berating me or the children if we displeased him. In turn, we also felt the expectation to appear as the perfect family; pretty, compliant wife, stay-at-home mother caring for three charming and well-behaved children. To an outsider, we looked like the perfect family; very “together”. We were not. If this facade was broken, if we somehow embarrassed Jason, there would be hell to pay when we got home.
The financial stress to buy gifts was only exacerbated by his unreasonable need to impress his family and friends by sending exorbitant gifts home; he exulted in their praise and gratitude. However, this led to our budget being even more strained and him reprimanding and berating me for spending too much on gifts for my family back home and our children. Inevitably there would be a fight about how much was spent, among other short-comings that I invariably had during this season and it was just a matter of when, how hard and how many times I was to experience Jason’s hands on me. I know from very real experience just how tumultuous the Christmas season can be when living with an abusive partner.
so, be mindful of the fact that not everyone will be experiencing the “Joy of Christmas” and check yourself before you encourage people to “cheer up” or “be grateful”. Also be aware of the signs of abuse and if you suspect a woman is a victim of domestic violence, do not turn a blind eye or pretend you do not see her bruise, her fear, her exhaustion. Ask her, “Are you safe?” This question is so much more effective than, “How are you?” or “Are you okay?” These questions are mundane and perfunctory and a woman living with an abusive partner will automatically answer this question with the same answer we are all programmed to say: “I’m fine,” and “Yes.” Asking her if she is safe is not a routine greeting and she may not have an automatic response to this question. She may have to think about it and she may just tell you, “No.” And if she does disclose to you that she is not safe, be prepared to help her, even if it is just a small gesture such as listening if she wants to talk or giving her the number to a Crisis Line; you have a moral duty to help her. Don’t let her down.
She’s someone’s sister. Someone’s mother. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s wife.
“Men judge us by our broad hips and forget their birthplace.”
Women must be sheltered from the fierce storms of life.
In the male-dominated fields of literature and politics, women are spoken of as men’s family, or their childhood homes, or treasures for them to protect. All out value lies in that we have value to men. While they are indeed beautiful ideas, to love our mothers and our sisters, to associate the feminine with the divine cradle of life, and to want- to protect women, because the world is indeed full of fierce and destructive storms- none of these ideas make these storms stop, and none of them build a shelter big enough to house all women. We will not be safe until even women who are only children, who are childless, who are orphaned, who are alone, are not considered worthless. We will not be safe until we are not the birthplace of men, but bodies and minds capable of self-actualization. We will not be safe until we are not objects to be sheltered, but fellow builders, participants in the creation of spaces in which to take refuge from the storm. We will not be safe until it is recognized that our value is not relational to men; we are men, men are us, and the discrepancy in the struggles we face is reflective of social injustice, not an inherent discrepancy in value.
We live in a world where fourteen women can be murdered for daring to pursue higher education. We live in a world where a teenage girl can be filmed being raped as she is vomiting, and the malicious spread of these images and the failure of the Canadian justice system will result in her suicide. We live in a world where more than one thousand Indigenous women and girls can be missing or murdered and this can be dismissed by the Canadian government. We live in a world where a woman who dares to pursue the most powerful political position in the world can be called a “nasty woman” and be judged on her looks and her demeanor rather than her qualifications for the job. We live in a world where women are not permitted to be outside unaccompanied by a man without risking being beaten and raped. We live in a world where girls are not permitted to go to school and if they defy their government and pursue an education they will be shot in the head and left to die, held as an example for other girls of what will happen if they, too, attempt to become educated. We live in a world where a woman can be beaten to death for speaking up for other women. Where a woman can receive death and rape threats for simply for speaking or creating art in a public space. We live in a world that still does not respect the dignity and importance- the value – of all women.
But we also live in a world where women can come together and lift our voices and our spirits together in hope. We live in a world where women are gathering, marching, protesting and these gatherings are getting bigger. We are getting louder. We are being heard.
The fight to have our value recognized is still being fought, and in spite of all the horrors we still face, and will face for years to come, we are winning. Those who stand against us, those who stand in our way, will not be able to stand there forever.We are many and we are powerful, and most importantly, we are human. Any arguments for continued violence against us, for our continued inequality, is an argument with that fundamental fact; We are human. As long as we know we are more than sisters, mothers, daughters and wives, more than the birthplace of men, more than treasures to be protected, that we are people in our own right, with independent an incontrovertible value, we cannot be silenced.
Note: This is an edited version of a speech written by my daughter, Em Kwissa, for the Dec. 6th vigil held in Lanark County in 2014. I have posted it with edits as I believe it is still relevant and still reflective of what women are facing today.
It’s no secret that misogyny and patriarchy have been forces at work in society for centuries. It’s no secret that women are treated as second class citizens around the world, objectified, discriminated against and denied equal rights and access to education, health care and protection under the law. Women have long been expected to “put up or shut up” and suffer in silence. The recent election campaign in the United States brought forward a lot of old wounds and shed light in the fact that the Women’s Movement still has so much work to do. Feminism is still not seen as equality for all, but the taking of rights from men to give women rights that many still believe they are not entitled to.Women are still not viewed as equals.
And while we can be incredulous and shout, “It’s 2016, people!” it does not seem to resonate with as many people as we thought it would. In truth, the politically correct climate we have been living in since the 90’s has really just pushed the truth of how so many people really think in to the darkest corners of their minds and hearts, leaving them feeling bitter. The Trump campaign which championed misogyny, patriarchy and white supremacy has allowed these stifled thoughts to bubble to the surface and has given people license to spew the hate that has been lying in wait in their hearts. Their words spur actions and we are seeing racist and misogynistic displays of hate across North America and around the world. We have been naive to think that the idea of “you can’t say that, you can’t think that way anymore” really changed what lies in people’s hearts and minds. Clearly we were deluded to think that the change we have been working to create was real and would continue to evolve for the good of humankind when a man like Donald Trump can be elected President of the United States of America.
Hate is taught and learned in families, generation by generation, a cycle as predominant and recognizable as the cycle of abuse, yet we have allowed ourselves to be wooed by this artificial safety net we call “politically correct”. Trump has pulled that safety net out from under us and we are witnessing the beginning of a free fall in to a clash of ideologies and civil unrest. Rallies and protests in the streets are peaceful so far, but for how long? I fear that the worst is yet to come and there will be violence in short order. While Trump has been back peddling on some of his campaign promises already and trying to tone down some of his campaign rhetoric, the damage has already been done. Those filled with hate, dissatisfied with their lives and looking for a scapegoat, have been given permission to act on their backwards ideologies.
Some may say I am being dramatic, but I don’t think I am. So many people are now living in fear, living with uncertainty and are trying to navigate a world that already looked down its proverbial nose at them, but they now have a target on their back. So many like me are sleepless at night with worry, anxiety heightened and feeling helpless to do anything to feel safe. I have been an advocate for women for years and I have always stood in Solidarity with any group who is disadvantaged or marginalized, however the situation that is unfolding seems overwhelming and impossible to process. There is so much that we were not prepared for; the election of Trump first and for most. All I can think to do is continue to speak out. But words seem so useless and wearing a safety pin on my clothing seems so minimal. Sharing posts on social media and signing petitions seems so trite and redundant.
I have long said that real action is what is needed to make change. Taking a real stand and, if need be, taking to the streets, is what will get people to take notice. Our complacency in how we deliver our message of what is acceptable, what we will tolerate and allow has come back to bite us in the ass. The protests and rallies that are happening right now in the USA are what should have been happening all along until we forced our politicians and world leaders to hear us and pass the laws that are need to protect the rights of all citizens. We know that the Legal, Judicial and Electoral Systems are broken and that at the very least change needs to take place, if not a complete overhaul. But we will never get this change to happen if we are not willing to put real pressure on our government. Women and LGBTQ persons and People of Colour are still dying daily and we can no longer afford to express our anger and sadness on Facebook and Twitter. Like the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, we need to be more visible and raise our voices higher than the din of hate that is now bubbling rapidly to the surface.
Civil unrest is evident and I do believe there will be a clash of ideologies, however history has taught us that the only real way to bring change is with force. The Suffragettes took to the streets to get the vote, the Women’s Movement took to the streets, burning their bras to get gender equality. People of Colour took to the streets in the Civil Rights Movement to get equal rights… When did we become so complacent as to think that social media was the answer? It is so easy to speak out from the comfort of our living room, sharing a post and then switching our focus to something less difficult for us to see. But not everyone has the privilege to tune out the hate, the pain that it causes and I believe we all have a duty to stand in Solidarity and participate in the Revolution that is coming if we truly want this world to be better for our children.
Call me an angry Feminist if you want, but I will be standing with my sisters and brothers in Solidarity and I will not be silenced.
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today… Aha-ah…Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace… You…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world… You…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one
I attended Ottawa Slut Walk on Sunday. A very good friend attended with me. We made posters and wore feather boas and put glitter in our hair. While we did not dress as flamboyantly as many of the other marchers, our voices were just as loud and our conviction just as strong.
I am a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. My friend is gay and deals with a whole other level of abuse on a daily basis that I can only sympathize for. He and I marched together, feeling empowered by all the people walking the streets of Ottawa with us.
In the year 2016, we would think that Slut Walk would not be necessary. We would hope that rape culture and misogyny and patriarchy were no longer relevant, but things that kids learn about in their history classes. Unfortunately, this is not the case; Feminism is a dirty word and so many people not only misunderstand Feminism, they truly believe it is about promoting inequality between men and women.
Feminism is about equality of the sexes, it’s not about giving women rights while taking rights away from men. Feminism means women and men are seen as equals; in the work place, in the home, walking down the street, in a bar, on a bus…But this is not the case. Women are not seen as equals and are not treated with the absence of malice. While not all women are victims, or survivors, if one of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed.
We need feminism because girls and women are sexually objectified, harassed and assaulted every day, just because they are female. According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18, compared to 1 in 8 boys. That is a staggering figure! In the media and in society in general, women are looked as sexual objects and it is so pervasive that even girls in elementary schools are being slut-shamed for wearing clothing deemed to be “too sexy”. I’m sorry, but there is nothing “sexy” about a ten year old and no one should be thinking otherwise.
This is why I need Feminism and why I know so many other women who are Survivors need Feminism. This is why I marched in Solidarity at Ottawa Slut Walk on Sunday and why I founded Slut Walk Lanark County. I want all women and LGBTQ to feel safe and respected and EQUAL in our society. And I will continue to march until there are no more unsafe streets to march on and misogyny truly is a phenomenon that kids only read about in their history books.
There are some words that we use to get a reaction, to get people to take notice. Words that make it very clear what we mean and how we feel. Society does not like these words being used out in the open but this is how Rape Culture, Misogyny and Patriarchy are continuing to be normalized. This is why violence against women is still, in 2016, a rampant occurrence. This is why women are still being killed on a daily basis and people hardly bat an eye. Victim blaming and shaming keep women from reporting sexual assault and abuse; their silence is deafening.
So lets just get it out in the open; lets start talking, no shouting, in anger and demand change. Lets stop calling it “sexual assault” when its RAPE. Let’s stop saying she’s a victim of domestic violence and say “HE IS AN ABUSER”. I want to stop hearing that women are being victims of murder, like they are active participants in their death. Let’s call it what it is; “HE MURDERED HER”, he took her life, stole her from her family and friends to accommodate his own person agenda of POWER and CONTROL. Let’s just stop being so kind to these MEN and call them out on their actions and be truthful in our adjectives. Let’s hold ourselves accountable for the way we treat victims by BLAMING them, SHAMING them and making them feel like whatever happened to them was THEIR OWN FAULT. I for one am sick and tired of being politically correct when it comes to violence against women. It’s addressed by government and agencies as VOW (violence against women). This is what we have reduced this “issue” to; an acronym. We can do more; women DESERVE more than than being lumped into a category of “issues to address” and referred to as a VOW. It’s callous and cold and it makes me angry to hear this. I am not the only one; many women and agencies, outreach services and shelter service are angry, too. That is what ARC is about.
The Federal government has pledged to make VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN a priority and develop a national strategy. In response to this, ARC has been meeting to discuss and prioritize what we want in a National Strategy. We are discussing the justice system and how it sets women up to be re-victimized in the courts. Police need mandatory training at all levels to understand what violence against women is, the cycle of abuse and how to speak to a victim. There needs to be much more funding for organizations and agencies that provide services and support to women. This money needs to be directly allotted to this issue and not offered as a trickle down of money that never really makes it to those who need it most. There must be a mechanism for oversight and accountability for funding and for agencies receiving this money.
Aboriginal women need a specialized agenda to support their unique position in society. They have been ignored, abused, murdered and treated like second class citizens for generations. Abuse within their communities is generational and normalized. And when an Aboriginal woman is MURDERED or is MISSING, no one seems to care. It’s not given the priority that it should and, sometimes, the very people who are supposed to be protecting these women and girls are the ones RAPING and MURDERING them.
The Family Law system fails women every day. There is a seemingly deliberate lack of understanding of domestic violence. Attorney’s and judges seem indifferent to the unique situation that is the reality of a woman escaping a relationship in which she was abused and assaulted. Family Law courts do not want to address or acknowledge criminal behaviour perpetrated by an ABUSER, and this sentiment is reciprocated by the Criminal Courts. Rather than working in tandem, they work in isolation and this leaves women and children at greater risk of harm. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE falls on deaf ears in the Family Court and women and children are left caught in the wheels of a very slow, inept system that has no empathy or understanding for them. Mandatory training for judges and lawyers is what is needed and will be included in the proposal from ARC.
Legal Aid funding needs to be increased and the test for eligibility needs to be specialized for victims of domestic violence or assault. Women should not have to deplete all their financial resources before becoming eligible for Aid. They should not have to live in abject poverty and prove their lack of assets and savings in order to be assisted. They should not be told they must sell their home, a home in which either she is living in or the abuser is and be forced in to a financial battle with her abuser that she cannot win. Women identifying as victims of domestic violence should be granted immediate assistance without a test of eligibility to at least have funds to meet with a lawyer and learn her rights.
Police need to be thoroughly trained about the cycle of abuse. Probation conditions need to be strictly enforced and victims need to be notified of all changes within those conditions. Restraining orders and conditions are not worth the paper they are written on if no one is willing to enforce them. Who is going to stand with a woman and allow her to feel safe?
Court Support Workers are under funded and over-worked. Money needs to be designated to hire more workers in each district to allow ease of access of service to victims. Particularly in rural areas, where distances between clients are great and courthouses can be a long way to travel. Funding for services in rural communities needs to be allotted more fairly and efficiently to allow shelters and victim services to properly meet the needs of the women they serve. It is sad to say in 2016, but money needs to be spent on building MORE SHELTERS for women. Wait lists and lack of beds leave women and children at risk and at the mercy of the ABUSER. Often shelters are a great distance from where the woman lives so she is pulled out of her community and support system. This is unacceptable!
Counselling for children needs to be included in the National Strategy; kids are not as resilient as people want to believe. Violence in the home affects the children as much as, and just as uniquely, as their mother and this needs to be recognized and understood. Trauma changes a child’s DNA, and this includes domestic violence. These children are not just witnesses, they, too, are victims. This trauma can change their path for the future, can lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD… These kids can later on become more likely to engage in risky behaviours, abuse drugs or alcohol and have severe mental health challenges. If we have a plan to support them as soon as possible, they can recover from the trauma and go on to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. But we cant just assume that “kids are resilient’ and they will bounce back. It’s not true and it is unfair to these children to assume otherwise.
The neglect of women and children in the medical system needs to addressed. The cycle of abuse needs to be part of the training of all persons in the medical field. Posting information in exam rooms and having pamphlets on the table in waiting rooms is not effective in assisting women and children. The right questions need to be asked. Women need to be allowed to speak autonomously without the abuser in the room and their situation needs to be respected. Action needs to be taken keeping in mind the unique situation of each woman.
This also applies to Law students. Domestic violence is not a mandatory area of study and is rarely discussed in the lecture hall. The Law Society has developed a training program in 2015, but it is not mandatory for students to access it in order to graduate. This needs to change, particularly for those going in to Family or Criminal Law so that they can better serve women who have been victimized become their clients.
The root issue of violence against women is MISOGYNY. Women are still not considered equal to men, their bodies are objectified and sexualized and they are not respected as autonomous individuals. Women are paid LESS in the work force, given LESS respect in the courts and looked at as hysterical, hormonal creatures who are somehow acting out against a man. Women are thought of manipulative and “GOLD DIGGERS” and not as sentient and intelligent PEOPLE. In 2016 one would think that misogyny was a thing of the past. But it is not. We are are all socialized as children to think of girls and women as “LESS” than an boy or man. It’s time to let these stereotypes and gender roles die and create a new thought pattern in which girls are raised as equal and as valuable as boys. Where women are respected and treated with the same DIGNITY as men.