Abuse against women: The secret no one wants to talk about

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Indy Star on 10/4/16 by Maureen C. Gilmer , maureen.gilmer@indystar.com

‘We keep this issue of domestic violence as if it was a lover in our bedrooms. No one wants to talk about it.’

The speaker asked for a show of hands. How many in the audience had suffered abuse? First, one hand, then another and another. A quick glance around the room revealed maybe 20 hands raised, representing about one-fifth of the audience.

This was a forum on violence against women and girls, so some might say the audience wasn’t representative of the general population. But multiple studies indicate that one in five women have been or will be victims of abuse, including rape, in their lifetime.

Josina Machel is one of those statistics. The daughter of former Mozambique president Samora Machel and stepdaughter of former South Africa president Nelson Mandela survived a brutal assault by someone she knew. She came to Indianapolis this week to address a forum hosted by the Desmond Tutu Center and Saving Orphans through Healthcare and Outreach.

Machel told how she was violently attacked by a trusted companion, leaving her blind in one eye, but also emboldened to speak out on the issue of violence against women and girls in her country and around the world.

“I don’t remember feeling threatened or anything that said life was about to change (before the attack),” she said, describing how the first blow to her head occurred after a disagreement while she was riding in a car with the man. She screamed as he struck again, this time the blow landing in her right eye, then a third to the back of the head.

Though stunned and bleeding, Machel was able to open the car door and run. And that started her journey into the world of domestic violence, she said. “My first lesson was, ‘Once instinct says run, you run,'” because you may not be able to tell the story if you wait.

Her next lesson was that even for a woman of privilege, justice moves slowly.

“The system fails us time and time again,” she said. “This is a human rights violation. Why are we so quiet about it — this little secret inside our homes? We keep this issue of domestic violence as if it was a lover in our bedrooms. No one wants to talk about it.”

That reality is what brought together 100-some invited guests representing advocacy groups, refugee organizations, the legal system, schools and local government among them.

Waseema Ali, managing director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary, says the roots of violence against women lie in the “persistent discrimination” allowed to flourish in communities, including college campuses, businesses and private homes.

“Violence will not stop because you and I are convened here,” she told the audience, adding it will take education, advocacy, funding, courage and strength to force changes in laws and in thinking.

To that end, Ali, Machel and other speakers challenged the audience to speak up about violence against women, about human trafficking, about gender inequity.

“In speaking out, you are encouraging other people to speak out, you are encouraging them to act,” Machel said.

Sonia DiOrio, 17, brought members of the Social Justice Club at International School of Indiana to Monday’s forum, hoping to tap into the energy of the speakers and audience to promote activism in her circles.

The high school senior said she and her friends want to help women and other marginalized people but didn’t really know how. Whether it be through writing, art, volunteering or other community engagement, “these speakers have shown me I can do something. We have a voice.”

Mady Neal, also a senior, has the same passion for social justice and gender issues, saying, “We need to speak out against sexual assault and domestic abuse.” Neal said the violence on college campuses “is astounding and terrifying for those of us entering that realm.”

For the handful of men in the audience, including the Rev. David Hampton, deputy mayor of Indianapolis, the challenge was clear:

“Men are the ones who help to shape the generation of boys so they can learn that strong men are gentlemen,” said Cynthia Prime, co-founder of Saving Orphans through Healthcare and Outreach. “We can speak for ourselves,” she said, but it takes men communicating with men to change the male culture. “You can change the thinking. It has to come from you.”

Prime said too often the world is deprived of the talents and abilities of women who are too wounded because of incidents in their lives that often go unreported and unaddressed. “It’s right here among us today. The pattern of destructive, corrosive, violent behavior must be changed, and change begins here. Even embryonic change begins with the dialogue at your tables.”

Hampton accepted that challenge during a panel discussion highlighting public and private efforts to address gender inequity, bullying, domestic violence and human trafficking.

Conceding that men are raised to be aggressive, to not show emotion and sometimes to be sexist, Hampton said, “It’s gonna take men to step up,” to stop injustice on many fronts.

Indiana Rep. Christina Hale, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket with John Gregg, also participated on the panel, lamenting the lack of diversity in the state’s General Assembly, “We’ll only have a healthier government when we have more people of different backgrounds represented.”

Others speaking were: Gail Masondo, counselor to victims of abuse and trafficking; Kirat Sandhu, who works with the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and is a sexual assault survivor; Jennifer Thuma, deputy attorney general with Indiana’s Victim Services and Outreach Division; Darlene Bradley, senior special agent with Homeland Security; and Sareen Lambright Dale, assistant director of Sexual Assault Education and Prevention at IUPUI.