Photo credits: Inter Press Service

[BigDataSur-COVID] Silent silencing: A survivor’s reflection on domestic violence during COVID-19

On 17 September 2020, the policy blog Ideas for India published a study reporting on rates of domestic violence and cybercrime during India’s lockdown, which started on 23 March. The study shows that domestic violence complaints have increased by 131 percent in May 2020 in districts with the strictest lockdown rules (“red zone”). It also reports on a survey that asks, separately to men and women, whether “a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife in a number of circumstances, including neglect of the house or children, improper cooking, disrespect for in-laws, and refusal to have sex”. Results show that districts where a greater proportion of husbands report that hitting or beating his wife is justified, experienced greater increases in domestic violence complaints in April and May 2020 in COVID-19 “red zone” districts relative to “green zone” districts. Such results sit within scholarship on the effects of lockdown on domestic violence and their measurability, calling for inclusive data visualisation as this blog has emphasised earlier this year.

As activists on domestic violence awareness, we leverage data to pass clear, effective messages to our audiences. Domestic violence statistics, as well as femicide data – where femicide defines as “”the intentional killing of females (women or girls) because they are females” and all too often contextualises within family or relationship situations, offer a powerful synopsis of the horror of living with abuse, and of the tragic culmination of situations where abuse is not recognised or addressed. Narrating abuse is hard ot only for the narrator but also for the listener. By way of example, in multiple occasions the author of this post has had persons asking her to “stop” or to “refrain from talking about abuse”(in some particular social or professional situations from members of her own family, acquaintances and colleagues. And still, for those – survivors and not – involved in the mission of helping people recognise the signs of abuse, statistics provide a numeric anchor to start sensitisation, to prevent people from turning the bling eye to the subject matter. So in that respect, statistics serve as a tool for sensitisation and awareness-raising.

But for us as survivors, the limits of statistics emerge in all their strength.

The twisted meaning of domestic violence statistics

Statistics are merely about reported abuse. And we know, in some national/institutional environments more than others, that reporting of domestic violence (physical, psychological, economic, or of any form) is discouraged more or less actively depending on context. In societies across the world abuse is stigmatised, silenced, blamed on the victim (as someone notified in a seminar recently, “you will never put your name and face on such a claim”). The author of this post, a survivor from a southern European country, has been actively advised not to report her abuser, for fears of retaliation, triggering memories, the renowned inaction of the national judiciary. We report, if we really want to. But we are ignored, laughed at, scorned and discouraged when we do so. As a result, many of us do not report domestic abuse.

Can you see now why we are so confident in arguing that domestic violence statistics, as powerful as they are, are likely to seriously underrepresent the phenomenon?

Silent silencing

But attention, nobody will openly silence a domestic violence survivor. Nobody will ever openly tell you “it is not acceptable to talk about survival”. Silencing, as we experience it in our everyday existence, is in itself… silent. Nobody says “do not talk about it”. They will say, “not here. This is not the place, not the right occasion”. Do not talk about it to colleagues, it will undermine your position of power. Do not talk about it in social occasions, it is inappropriate. Do not talk about it to the extended family, you will make them worried without a reason. In a nutshell, overall, survive if you can, but do not talk about it, do not tell us.

We survive, those of us who do. But the byproduct of survival, us, is not socially accepted. As mentioned above, one month after reporting my abuser, a close family member told me to “lower my voice” while talking about it in a social occasion. We are allowed to survive, if we manage to. But then, silently, we are forbidden to talk.

I spend substantial times collecting the most accurate statistics and reports to talk about survival. Statistics go beyond grabbing the listener’s attention, they offer a photograph of the issue that numerically is the most accurate we have. But when it is life, we are silently silenced, encouraged to stay put, to lower our voice. Because it is ok to survive, yes. But it is not professional, or socially acceptable, to live as a survivor. It is not acceptable to talk about it either.

Read statistics, use them. Build on them to bring the ongoing, pandemic-induced sharp rise in domestic violence to attention, to break the silence that still dominates in most parts of the world. But when you read statistics, just think that many of us live in silence, those of us who live, with the responsibility of being the voice of those whose abusers have silenced forever. Just think that we cannot put our names and faces to these voices, for the safety of our own loved ones and our very selves. And we cannot talk, because it is not “socially acceptable”. So please do use statistics. But when you do, remember our silently, socially acceptably silenced, voices behind them.


About the author

I am an academic professional and a recent survivor of intimate partner abuse. I am the anonymous pen behind SurvivorChrisalis, a blog about my life as survivor and the importance of activism to spread awareness of the early signs of abuse.