When Silence Is Not Golden

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Published: December 10, 2014

There are times when silence is not golden, but rather a rusty blade left to the elements after it has killed many. Silence is not golden is when it involves domestic violence.

Think about it. According to the website Domestic Violence Statistics, “At least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Most often, the abuser is a member of her own family.” Many know at least one case of domestic violence – a husband beating his wife day and night, a boyfriend expressing his artistic skills on his girlfriend’s skin with a cane, a child locked in the darkness of hunger. Why are these abuses so seldom reported, and the abusers so rarely prosecuted? Silence.

The way the Nigerian society is wired, we do not encourage women who are victims of domestic abuse to talk. A woman tells her mother that her husband beat her, and in response, her mother tells her that her father used to beat her, that it is normal, that she should endure it.

A young lady is raped. Society asks, “What did you wear? Did you seduce him? Why did you go out alone with him at night? How can you say your husband raped you?” Some even go so far as to call it “surprise sex.” Pray tell, should there be a reason, any reason at all, for rape?

A child is sexually abused by a family member. The family wants their honour preserved, so they sweep it under the rug of time. But what is honour when it is coated in shame? Silence has become a cancer, a killing disease.

The law does not help. Section 55 of the penal code in Northern Nigeria allows for the “correction” of a wife if it does not lead to “grievous harm.” What kind of harm is “grievous”? A burning cheek? A broken leg? A lost foetus?

To prove rape, there must first be the proof of penetration; penetration must then be linked to the accused; and the penetration must have occurred without the woman’s consent. Yet how can you even begin to prove such things in a country without a functional forensic lab? And how many of us are not challenging this state of affairs? Our silence has encouraged these old laws to remain entrenched in our constitutions.

Only four states in Nigeria have passed laws against gender-based violence, and even fewer have an agency specifically devoted to these cases. Lagos State has the Lagos State Gender Advocacy Team (LASGAT), which runs a “Connect Victims” project. The Team recently released a directory with contact information for help centres and other organisations working in the area of domestic violence.

As important as passing such laws is ensuring the execution of those laws. Many times when abused women go to police stations, they are told to go back home and be good wives. They are told that it is a family affair, not a civil matter. Without proper execution, a law is just a barking dog – unable to bite, it can keep offenders at bay only for a short while.

When we keep quiet in times when we should raise our voice, when we avert our gaze when we should look the issue squarely in the face, we encourage domestic violence. We make it stronger. We allow it to grow into a monster, devouring its victims while we look on, arms folded against our chests. We must not further victimize the victims with our silence.

RELATED STORY: One Woman’s Fight Against Gender Violence — Olutosin’s Story

Ways to break the silence

Change your attitude: There is nothing to justify violence of any kind. Violence is a lazy, unacceptable option. Never justify domestic violence by blaming the woman involved, or by saying, “It is their business, let them sort it out,” or “Oh, I do not want to come between two people in love.” Domestic violence is a crime.

Listen, don’t judge: Whenever a woman tells you her abuse story, listen. Don’t try to rationalize the possible reasons she stays in the relationship (“Oh, the man is giving her all the money, that is why she cannot leave,” or “She is old enough to know what to do”). Sometimes the thing that victims need most is a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, because many times, the real scar is in the heart, and a listening ear can be the first touch of the healing balm.

Show her the options: An abused woman does not have to remain in an abusive relationship while the abuse is occurring. Showing someone how to exit an abusive relationship does not mean that you support divorce. Sometimes separating can be good for the relationship; it can sometimes help straighten a man’s head and clear a woman’s eyes, and it takes the children off the battlefield. No one need die in silence when there are peaceful shelters waiting for them. Make a list of people she can stay with, such as family members and friends. Some states, like Lagos State, have shelters for victims of domestic abuse.

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An abused woman should keep money for a rainy day – the day she has to run. She may need to rent a place, pay hotel bills or take a taxi to safety. You do not learn how to fight on the battlefield; an abused woman must make herself battle-ready. Equip her with the weapons of war: the breastplate of ready cash, the helmet of information and the sword of action.

Take action: If you notice a friend who always has a black eye and attributes it to a fall every time, say something. If you see an abuse in progress – a man on your street beating his wife, shaming her by tearing her clothes – find the nearest police station and report it. Don’t assume that there is a good reason for it, and do not say that it is not your business. It is your business. Tomorrow it could be you or a family member.

Guide her to freedom: Many times these things happen because the women involved do not know their rights. Tell these women that they do not have to stay in abusive relationships. Tell them that abuse is a crime. Guide them to an NGO that caters to victims of gender abuse.

Say something. Do something.

One word at a time, the silence can be broken. Where abuse exists, everyone can do something – the abuser, the abused, friends, organizations and governments. Do something today. Before you leave your children motherless. Before you read your own daughter’s obituary. Before you realize that your friend’s bruises were not from falls or anything else off her endless list of impossible excuses. Before it is too late to do something – break the silence.

RELATED: One Woman’s Fight Against Gender Violence — Olutosin’s Story

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About Temitayo Olofinlua

Temitayo Olofinlua works in Ibadan, Nigeria as a freelance writer and editor. She is also the Creative Director of Wordsmithy Media.
The award-winning essayist has been published in several outlets.

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