Let’s End the Shame That Silences Victims of Domestic Violence

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but let’s make it our mission year-round to end the one important thing that, paradoxically, is both a dire consequence of domestic violence and a factor contributing to its perpetuation: shame.

Sadly, victims of domestic violence often feel a deep yet unwarranted sense of shame, as if they were somehow responsible for their abusers’ actions. As a result, they are afraid of speaking up to seek support, or denouncing their abusers.

The Vicious Cycle

Many of the women I interviewed for my book, “Hear Us Speak: Letters From Arab Women,” have been victims of abuse. Sadly, the notion of shame arose time and again during our conversations.  A Kuwaiti painter whose husband beat her regularly told me that the last time he did so, she wound up in the hospital with a deep cut on her forehead.  The doctor asked her what happened, and she answered, “I fell down.” She was too ashamed to tell him the truth. A Gulf business woman whose husband also physically and emotionally abused her told me: “I try not to hate myself, and I fight against the pervasive shame I have carried with me for so long. I have finally begun the long process of recovering my self-worth.”

The reasons for this sense of shame differ according to circumstances and cultural context. One common thread is abusers everywhere are often masters of gaslighting. Gaslighting is what occurs when an abuser tries to control a victim by twisting their sense of reality. It destroys victims’ trust in themselves and their ability to make decisions and act freely. Another cause of shame, prevalent in cultures such as that of the Arab world I come from, is a widespread belief that when abuse occurs, it is because the woman did something to provoke it. In other words: society tells people that women are to blame. This creates deeply ingrained feelings of shame and disgrace among women who suffer from abuse of any sort.

What Can Be Done?

Speaking up is the very thing that will help abuse victims heal and bring the vicious cycle of abuse to an end. That’s why we must end the shame. For change to happen, we must encourage victims to speak. Here are a few steps we can—and must—take:

Give those in abusive situations or cultures the tools to believe in their self-worth.  These include conversations, education, support groups, mentors and role models.

Help them understand that they have a right to their own thoughts, opinions and emotions. As a part of this process, we must examine and unravel entrenched belief systems and ways of thinking that claim the contrary. We must also call out gaslighting wherever it occurs to end its toleration.

Spread the message that abuse is NOT the victims’ fault and that it’s always unacceptable. This message must be heard within families, communities, workplaces and at the government level. It must be incorporated into the education, social services and law enforcement systems.

Fight for better legislation protecting women – and its implementation. In much of the world, there’s a lot more work to be done to ensure not only women’s equality, but also, their safety and basic human rights. The Middle East is one example of a region where women suffer abuse without protection from the courts, or where laws that do offer protection are often ignored.

Help tell the stories of those suffering from abuse. Doing so builds awareness and empowers victims to stand up for their rights. It is precisely what I’ve done in Hear Us Speak, for that very reason. Its messages are universal. I hope the book encourages conversations around domestic violence, Arab women’s issues, and women’s issues as a whole.

Intimate Partner Violence Doesn’t End With the Relationship

The violence that occurs between intimate partners does not end with the relationship’s conclusion, yet few resources exist to help survivors move beyond the betrayal of abusive relationships in order to begin new, healthy relationships.

The effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) are profound, painfully enduring and should command as much attention as providing victims with the help necessary to leave violent relationships, according to a new study by a University at Buffalo social work researcher.

“Once a victim leaves an abusive relationship we have to begin addressing the issues that stem from having been in that relationship,” says Noelle St. Vil, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Social Work. “You can carry the scars from IPV for a long time and those scars can create barriers to forming new relationships.”

St. Vil calls IPV a pervasive public health issue.

Nearly one in three women in the U.S. have experienced IPV.  One in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner.

IPV is a subtype of domestic violence.  While domestic violence can include violence occurring among any individuals living in a single household, IPV is at the level of an intimate relationship.

It’s one partner trying to gain power and control over another partner. IPV can involve many types of violent behavior, including physical, verbal, emotional and financial.

Looking at IPV from the perspective of betrayal trauma theory, a concept that explores when trusted individuals or institutions betray those they’re expected to protect and support, St. Vil’s research, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, explores how the long-lasting implications of IPV and the consequences of being in such a relationship should be addressed.

“We often use betrayal trauma theory to describe children who have experienced child abuse,” says St. Vil.  “But the same betrayal occurs with IPV: a partner who you trust, can be vulnerable with, who should be building you up, is in fact inflicting abuse. It’s a betrayal of what’s supposed to be a trusting relationship.”

With most help and support centered on keeping women safe in a relationship or providing them with the means to get out of an abusive relationship, St. Vil began thinking about the effects of the trauma.

“How do you move forward after leaving?” she asked. “What does that look like?”

Her interviews with nine survivors of IPV represent the initial steps to answer those questions and revealed four barriers to establishing new relationships.

  • Vulnerability/Fear: Women emerging from IPV often set up an emotional wall, hesitant to begin new relationships. Some victims said they entered into a physical relationship, but avoided becoming emotionally attached.
  • Relationship Expectations: Some women in the study opened themselves emotionally, but expected even what appeared to be a healthy relationship to decay into violence.
  • Shame/Low Self-Esteem: Participants in the study expressed how low self-esteem sabotaged new relationships. Part of gaining power and control in violent relationships involves breaking down self-esteem.  When things aren’t going well in new relationships, victims can return to the feelings experienced during IPV, asking, “Why would anyone love me?”
  • Communication Issues: St. Vil says communication is a major issue in new relationships as victims struggle to understand and explain to new partners what they experienced during IPV and its effects on their current behavior.  Women who were unable to communicate their experiences felt disconnected from their new relationships.

St. Vil says her one-on-one interviews capture critical aspects of IPV survivors’ experiences.

“This is a starting point,” she says. “We’re trying to understand the depth of the issue and can use the data from this research for a potentially larger study.”

For the time being, St. Vil is emphatic.

“The effects don’t end once a woman is out of the relationship.  We need to understand that and know there’s more work to be done.”

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