The deadly silence of shame and honour

By Janet Fyle, on 07 December 2020

This year’s United Nations-sponsored 16 days of activism against gender based violence began at the end of November. As midwives we are all too aware of the impact of domestic violence and abuse on the women in our care – and many of us will have tried to support those who are too afraid or ashamed to speak out or seek help.

We know that too many women suffer in silence. Estimates suggest that at least a third of women and girls globally have been victims of gender-based violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the conditions for this violence, resulting in many women feeling even more isolated, scared and at risk of violence in their homes.

The fear experienced by victims deters them from reporting abuse. Many feel it is their fault or conceal the shame. Women and girls from communities that have a strong sense of family honour are particularly vulnerable. Religion and culture and their definitions of ‘honour’ can discourage some women from reporting the horror they live through, for fear of causing family shame. This code becomes even more dangerous when it collides with a fervent belief in punishment. Many women from these communities internalise abuse as their fault and as deserved punishment. Reporting it to authorities is not even a consideration.

Within their communities, some mothers and other family members may mediate so that their marriageable daughters are not irreversibly shamed. Reactions to a perceived infraction by a married woman, such as a victim of domestic abuse seeking help, are outright denial or blaming the victim. It is she who must change her behaviour.

It is a difficult everyday challenge for women who live in fear, who are isolated and dependent on their partners for financial support whether or not to seek help. For many it is a choice between their family and community and getting the help – and justice - they need. That is why women taking this brave step must receive the reassurance from those around her, and particularly professionals, that she will be heard and supported. Easy to access services, advocacy, and professionals who are willing to listen and help are vital – as is the need for those professionals to act with empathy and have the right training.

Leaving an abusive relationship takes immeasurable emotional strength and courage. That should be acknowledged by the professionals, like midwives, who help them take that first step. There is nothing shameful in being a victim. Family honour is not the victim: the woman is. Domestic abuse and violence have immediate and long term consequences for her and her children. Sharing the experience can start to free them from their anguish, unite them with other women who can help and support them, and mark the beginning of the end of secret shame. This is the best way to escape the scourge of domestic violence, by empowering women to tell their truth.