November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. As female entrepreneurs we may assume that we were immune against being assaulted. After all, we are financially independant, confident and successful women. And indeed, those are features supposed to protect us. Hence, it can be even more difficult for a woman in charge to ask for help if she becomes the victim of violence; be it at home, in the workplace, or elsewhere.
The first time I met an actual victim of sexual violence and knew it, hit me hard. I had studied education and all kinds of violence at university. I had volunteered at a women’s shelter for a short period of time. Granted, all I can recall is my frustration with women going back to their husbands and the ‘no hierarchy’ delusion within the professional team. I quit my studies to become a self-defence teacher. One should assume that I knew what was going on in the world, and still, I was unprepared.
My son was only a few years old, and our au pair came home from her language class, upset. She told me about a young class mate who always wore sun glasses and lots of make-up. She thought she might be in a situation of violence. Should she help her or not? We discussed options and I offered my help should it be wanted.
A few days later I met a stunningly beautiful girl from Eastern Europe who stood in my hallway, tall and proud. You could tell that she was not the one to be broken. Until the moment she took off her sun glasses, only to reveal a fresh black eye. Her husband was hitting her regularly and she needed help to leave him. As a foreigner, she had no right of residence apart from her right as his wife. Later on in the discussion she lowered her jeans and I saw exactly where he had kicked her.
I will never forget that picture. It was even worse than the black eye. The older bruise was proof of something happening on a regular basis, not a singular outburst of violence. That man thought he could treat her as shit because she depended on him. This woman was allowed to stay in my country as the possession of a man. But risked deportation when leaving him – although he was the perpetrator.
She had a long, hard journey in front of her. In the end, she found a new place to live, a good job and a new family. Her ex-husband was convicted for raping and hitting her repeatedly.
6 things I learned along the way
I, however, learned a lot during the process.
Ethnocentrism limits our ability to help.
How blind we are because of the way we live! Everybody considers normal what one experiences every day. One day I asked her: “Why don’t you just go back home? When my husband hit me, I would run straight to my mom”. I learned that there are countries where divorced women or victims of rape cannot get back into society. Not as respectable women whatsoever. And that’s right next door, not on some far away sub-continent.
It is crucial to have native speaking consultants.
She was unable to tell me about the rape just because she had no word for it. It was very important to meet someone speaking her language. That allowed her to talk about all the nuances of her feelings and experiences. I started to learn the languages of the people I work with. Not because I wouldn’t think they should learn the language of the country they live in. But to show my support. Plus, learning new languages helps the brain stay healthy, and it impresses people pretty much. 🙂
Violence can happen to everybody.
Yes, there are people who become victims repeatedly, and there are traits perpetrators look for. Confidence and financial independance are supposed to protect us. But that is no guarantee that it never happens to you or me. The only ‘mistake’ this woman made was trusting the man she loved and moving to his home country with him. Where she knew nobody except his mother who helped her son. And who called the woman who accused her precious baby of rape and assault, a slut and a whore. What if our au pair had turned her back on her class mate as so many others did?
Victims are incredibly resilient.
You can survive everything if you refuse to let someone break you. He hit her. Raped her. Called her names. He locked her up. Kicked her. But he never managed to destroy her will and her dignity. He didn’t even manage to destroy her trust in other people.
You need help.
Smart help. She did manage to keep her dignity and trust partly because she had help from great people. Our au pair being considerate in the first place. Me being concerned with sexual violence and knowing exactly where to turn for professional help. Everybody we met was very clear about who was the victim and who was the perpetrator. The consultant, the lawyer and the police, even the judge. Nobody ever suggested that she had her share of guilt in the situation. Because she was dumb or tempted her husband or whatever the idiot’s arguments sometimes are when women are raped.
Prepare to prevent.
There are some skills in life you learn only to hope you will never need them. Self-defence is definitely my number one on that list.
Another factor is having the resources to leave an abusive situation or ask for help. Be it cultivating friendships, creating an emergency fund, or knowing your rights or where to turn to.
Important: If you are in danger, please call the police or your national helpline. And if you feel like someone you know is in an abusive situation, let them know that you’re available to support them if they are ready to get help. Don’t force yourself on them, and don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation!
Are you concerned about your own or your staff’s safety?
For companies that want to address sexual violence amongst or against their workforce, we offer a range of consulting, coaching and training services. Please get in touch to discuss your consulting needs or book your coaching session directly.