No Place Like Home

A global exploration of violence between partners

A woman in hiding at a shelter in Managua, Nicaragua. Photo by Lucian Perkins.

By Susana Seijas, originally published on Orb

Aisha Namuyingo, is a slender, soft-spoken woman with big almond-shaped eyes. At 40, she is quiet and elegant. Aisha got married at 18, had three children and is already a grandmother. Throughout her marriage, her husband often humiliated and hit her. She felt afraid, sad and lonely.

Aisha explains that she and her husband got married because he was jealous and that he started beating her soon after their wedding. As she speaks her large eyes focus on the red earth and green hills of Kampala far off in the distance, “My husband would beat me but when he finished beating me, he would apologize and expect me to forgive him. Every time that happened, I didn’t feel like I had an option because I feared that my relatives would say that I was rude.”

An astonishing 59 percent — almost 3 in 5 — Ugandan women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. The countries with comparable rates of domestic violence to Uganda are Chad, Tajikistan, Vanuatu and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

For this project our data team collected the most recent statistics for 115 countries regarding domestic violence — defined as physical or sexual abuse between intimate partners. In that group, the lowest domestic violence prevalence rate is 5 percent. But 80 of these 115 countries have a rate at or above 20 percent. That means that in many countries at least 1 in 5 women have experienced violence at the hand of their partner.

We analyzed the data and traveled to Nicaragua, Sweden and Uganda to better understand why this violence between partners is so prevalent and so widespread. We also sought to understand what might mitigate it or even prevent it from happening in the first place. Data is most widely collected on heterosexual women as the victims of domestic violence and that reality framed our work.

After each beating, Aisha’s husband apologized, so she kept forgiving him, thinking he would change. This pattern went on for years until the violence intensified.

Listening to Aisha, I sensed that she feels her role in life is to have babies and that if beatings are a part of that, such is her fate. She is telling me about some of the worst moments in her life and as she does so, she looks at the floor, then at the sky. As I listen to Aisha I find myself on her journey of suffering and loneliness.

As she describes her life in an abusive relationship, I begin to grasp the isolation she’s experienced, as if a wall had circled her body and imprisoned her, where options — including simple options, such as asking for help from her family — disappear beyond her reach.

This is the experience of domestic violence women share all over the world, no matter whether they are educated or not, rich or poor, European, African or Latin American. They become isolated. They live in fear. And that paralyzes them.

“They begged me to return. But they never knew that the woman my husband was with was HIV positive, and so he was infected,”

Aisha doesn’t want to go into too much detail about how her husband beat her. She is careful with her words. She refers to these beatings, via our interpreter, as “mistreatment.” I’m impressed by her composure but also frustrated. Like a broken record, I keep on thinking: Why did she put up with this? How could she put up with this? Did she somehow think she deserved the beatings?

When the beatings intensified, Aisha put aside what friends and family would think of her and left her husband. Visibly getting more upset, she braces herself to recount that in her two-year absence, her husband set up home with another woman. Aisha would occasionally go there to ask for money for their third child, who was still a baby. After two years her mother-in-law persuaded Aisha to go back to her husband, and she did, hoping he would change.

“They begged me to return. But they never knew that the woman my husband was with was HIV positive, and so he was infected,” she says, tears now flooding her eyes.

Aisha can’t finish the rest of the sentence, so our interpreter tells me calmly in English what Aisha is struggling to say in her native Lugandan: “When she returned she had sex with him and of course she got infected with HIV,” our interpreter continues, “and that is why she is breaking down.”

It was only later, when Aisha saw the woman her husband had been with during their separation walking around town, skeleton thin and with a terrible rash, that Aisha suspected the woman had HIV. She realized her husband was frequently getting sick, that he could be infected and that by default she could also have HIV. They both got tested. They both had HIV.

Years later, still back together with him, the worst was yet to come, “I have HIV and my husband locked me out of the house. I haven’t eaten, I haven’t drunk any water, I haven’t done anything. But it was time for me to take my medicine.”

In that moment Aisha knew she had to leave her husband. Having her medicine was critical. She had to change her situation — or she would die.

Today, Aisha’s thin, fragile frame is hidden underneath a floor-length dress with immense puffed up sleeves, the typical “gamesi” dress of Uganda. She has lived with HIV for 20 years. Luckily none of her children tested positive. “Many women do not ask their partners to test for HIV because many men will not allow it. So violence puts women at a very high risk for HIV because you do not test and you cannot say no to sex,” Aisha tells me, with the heaviness of someone who has seen too much.

In Uganda, where men are often unfaithful, the challenge of domestic violence is compounded by a high HIV rates. Intense grass roots and political advocacy campaigns pushed for and successfully passed the Domestic Violence Act in 2010.

But what social elements might play a role in whether a country has a 28 percent, a 59 percent or a 78 percent domestic violence prevalence rate? Can we gain some insight that might help mitigate it everywhere? One element explored through data analysis was also something heard repeatedly on the ground. Attitudes towards domestic violence matter. Specifically, women’s attitudes regarding domestic violence matter.

Over the years, surveys have asked women if they believe there are certain circumstances — like if you burn the dinner or refuse sex — when being beaten is acceptable. There is a clear link between social attitudes towards partner violence and prevalence on a country level. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) issued a report in March 2013 stating that “the average prevalence of domestic violence in countries where there is a high acceptance of domestic violence is more than double the average of countries where there is a low acceptance of domestic violence.”

Recognizing that the law is not enough, two organizations in Uganda, Raising Voices and the Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, are breaking new ground and changing attitudes by working with both men and women to raise awareness and challenge people’s thinking. In doing so, they are changing behaviors.

Rose Namutebi, a 70-year-old traditional marriage counselor or “senga” told us that women used to come to her to tell her they suffered abuse, and her response was “he is your husband, put up with it.” Now through the awareness-raising work of activists in her community, she is more likely to tell them “it’s against the law for your husband to beat you.”

Changing attitudes takes patience and relentless community outreach. Another social element that has a relationship with domestic violence prevalence rates is how financially independent women are. From a common sense perspective, anyone who is financially dependent on someone else will think hard before leaving them. And our data analysis shows that countries where women have little or no access to credit, have almost twice the overall rate of domestic violence as countries where women have the same access to credit as men. Also, countries where women have equal access as men to ownership of agricultural land on average have lower domestic violence prevalence rates than countries where they do not have equal access.

Grace Lwanga, who works at Kampala’s Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, advises women to do something that’s unusual in Uganda: She recommends they own property in their name. “Even working class women, when I talked to them you would find you have a job, you get your money, but when you are going to buy land the local leaders tell you, ‘No, it should be in the name of your husband.’ And tomorrow when you have a problem the title is not in your name.”

Half a world away, the rate of domestic violence in Nicaragua is about half that of Uganda’s, as there is more awareness of domestic violence and less acceptance of it, yet ending generations of this type of violence is an enduring challenge.

At an undisclosed location, behind high walls, somewhere outside Managua, I meet Graciela, a beautiful 32-year-old mother who suffered eight years of emotional and physical abuse from her husband. Graciela asked us not to use her real name or reveal her face. She lives in fear that the abusive husband she left will find her and kill her.

“He would tell me, ‘You’re gonna die’… He said he’d kill me and our daughter, and even kill my mom if I didn’t stay with him.”

She is one of the 29 percent of women who experience domestic violence in Nicaragua. In this way, Nicaragua is not unusual and its rate is comparable with the United Kingdom, Barbados, Finland and New Zealand.

Like many victims, who activists call “survivors,” Graciela put up with abuse because she was terrified of her aggressor. She lived in fear of what he would do to her and her children if she stayed, but she was just as, or more, afraid of what he would do if she left him. When it comes to domestic violence, the individual experiences are unique, but victims like Graciela share a deep and disabling sense of isolation across culture and nationality.

“He would tell me, ‘You’re gonna die.’ When he pointed the gun at me I couldn’t stand it. I was living there, like this, for six months. By then I was six months pregnant… My daughter was born. Then he threatened to kill her if I didn’t stay living with him. He said he’d kill me and our daughter, and even kill my mom if I didn’t stay with him.”

That sense of isolation often emerges slowly, alongside a gradual increase in violence. And because it happens gradually, many women don’t realize they are becoming stuck.

One night after their second child was born Graciela’s husband held a knife to their 3-month-old baby boy and threatened to kill him. Like Aisha, Graciela had a moment of realization where she saw the danger she and her children were in clearly and resolved to find her way out.

“What hurts me most is that my daughter was watching,” says Graciela, overwhelmed by crying, “That hurts me because my daughter remembers, says her dad is a bad person. She always says he’s a bad person. She never forgot.”

As Graciela told me what she went through, I couldn’t help but think — how could anyone hold a knife to a newborn? But I also felt profound sadness. It isn’t enough that your partner beats you unconscious, as Graciela’s did, but before you will leave him you have to see the man you once loved threaten to kill your children?

Luz Torres is trying to turn the tide of violence and create lifelines for women like Graciela.

Luz is a gruff-voiced, no-nonsense activist who runs the March 8 Women’s Collective — an organization that includes a bustling drop-in center for victims of violence, a shelter and several awareness raising programs.

Luz is also mother hen to a legion of volunteers who act as her emissaries in and around Managua, raising awareness about domestic violence in their barrios and what can be done to prevent it. They all aim to let women know there are options if they are suffering violence. None of them want to see more deaths from domestic violence, like that of Johana González.

Johana was a 37-year-old schoolteacher and mother of two. After suffering for 10 years in an abusive marriage, she managed to leave her husband. One month after leaving him, he killed her one morning as she got off the bus on her way to work. What happened to Johana is exactly what so many women in abusive relationships fear, and for some, a big part of why they stay.

So far this year, 47 women have been killed by their partners in Nicaragua, a country of 6 million people. That’s 17 more murders than the whole of last year, according to the Nicaragua Women’s Network Against Violence, which keep a tally of the murders it calls “femicides.”

Luz tells me the situation has reached a point of “red alert.” She is disappointed and argues that the government underreports the rate of violence against women. “For example, the government is only reporting 18 deaths compared to the Observatory’s 47 women killed so far this year. What does this tell you?” Luz asks, with anger and indignation. “We can’t rely on official figures.”

Luz takes me to meet Johana’s family as they gather to remember her in the town of Masaya, an hour from Managua. Emma Mena, Johana’s aunt is busy putting the finishing touches on a makeshift altar, before a prayer meeting in honor of her niece.

In the centerpiece, below a picture of the Virigin Mary, is a photo of Johana, strong and pensive, and far too young to be buried in the local cemetery. The dirt on her grave is still loose and clumpy, strewn with purple and white ribbons.

“On one occasion, I told her to leave him but she was afraid of what would happen, or that he would do something to the children,” Mena says, her eyelids puffy from crying, “Johana didn’t want to talk.”

Again and again I heard that reaching out, talking, ensuring that victims of domestic violence know there are options for them is fundamental to them leaving these violent relationships. But Johana, Graciela and Aisha all overcame tremendous challenges and climbed over that wall of isolation.

Could we prevent that wall from forming in the first place? How can we ensure victims know their rights, their options? How can the awful pain that domestic violence visits on individuals and family members be ended? How can we stop it before it starts?

Talking to friends about the violence they have become accustomed to at home can be difficult for victims for many reasons. A powerful one is that someone who is abused will reasonably shy from doing anything that might upset the abuser or trigger another beating. Doing even small or simple things that might invite a barrage of emotional and physical abuse becomes unthinkable. But seeking help after the first incidence may represent the best chance they have of getting out.

The problem, says Luz, looking me straight in the eye, “is when a problem isn’t dealt with, it becomes a pandemic. The Nicaraguan state is not attacking violence against women, so it turns into a pandemic. What we talk about here, day in and day out, is pressure. Women’s organizations are addressing this violence, not the Nicaraguan state. Where is the state speaking out about the thousands of Johanas who have died?”

But some steps are being taken. Not long ago, a husband in Nicaragua could hit his wife and it was not considered a crime. A law enacted in 2012, now protects women’s physical, emotional and economic well-being. Luz and activists like her would like there to be more focus on prevention, rather than punishment.

Because it is so prevalent, domestic violence can seem an overwhelming and intractable social problem. Our data analysis and conversations with both the victims and those who work with them daily suggests that there are at least a few things that can help people avoid or escape this abuse.

“A law needs to be part of a change in the overall environment, meaning that there should be a politics of state protection of the rights of women”

The global data that ORBmedia collected about the prevalence of domestic violence and legislation criminalizing domestic violence indicates countries with laws that criminalize beating, maiming or raping a spouse have an average partner violence prevalence rate 5 percentage points lower than countries that do not have such laws. In many cases, once women know about the law, it encourages them to seek help.

Because the Nicaraguan government did not return our calls requesting an interview to discuss the law and what it is doing to prevent violence against women, I visit Sergio Ramírez, the Nicaraguan author and former vice president, who says a that law alone is not enough.

“A law needs to be part of a change in the overall environment, meaning that there should be a politics of state protection of the rights of women, for public health campaigns — because this is a public health problem — not just condemning mistreatment.”

Still, getting women to leave abusive relationships proves difficult.

I ask Graciela what she would do to end domestic violence, and she echoes what many women like her have told me: “I would say that the first time you experience violence, and that you feel bad — speak out, report it or go to the organizations, if the authorities don’t listen to you, let the women’s organizations listen to you, there are options.”

I heard echoes of Graciela’s experience when I visited Wiweca Holst, a board member of ROKS, the Swedish shelter organization that coordinates over 100 shelters for women suffering violence in Sweden.

I was going to see Wiveca because I was struggling to find a woman who had endured domestic violence to interview. Because of the stricter privacy laws in Sweden, access to victims is tough. As we sat down for the interview in a conference room by the side of a window overlooking downtown Stockholm, I was stunned to find that Wiveca herself knew the experience of violence firsthand:

“So, it started by controlling me. Isolating me. Hurting me with words. I was married to a violent man for 15 years. And it took us several years to understand that he raped me. He was a very well-known man. And I was convinced that no one was ever going to believe me. I mean everyone loved him, he was such an extrovert person, and very charming and well liked. So I didn’t tell anyone.”

Wiveca’s trauma extended to her son. It was only last year — 20 or so years after the worst of the violence — that Wiveca found out that her oldest son had slept with a baseball bat when he was a child. “And he said he was going to kill his father if he came. So yes, he knew.”

Apart from the emotional, physical and psychological trauma of violence, there are also health implications. Dr. Steven Lucas, an American-born pediatrician now practicing in Sweden, is the lead researcher at the National Centre for Knowledge on Men’s Violence Against Women at Uppsala University.

“We see that the health of the people who have been affected by violence as a group is much poorer in some areas, several-fold higher prevalence of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, but also psychosomatic symptoms. And even in our study we have shown that older women have a several-fold, up to fourfold increased incidence of heart attacks, myocardial infarction if they have been exposed to violence previously.”

Wiveca believes she suffers rheumatism because of the violence she went through in her marriage. “I have no scientific evidence,” says the frank-speaking 65-year-old blonde, “but I’m absolutely convinced that my immune system went bananas, attacking my joints, as a consequence of living in a violent environment.”

Like other victims, one day Wiveca realized she just couldn’t go on like this. “He broke my nose … that was it. I’d had enough.” After 15 years, something in her had changed and she found the strength to leave him. She clambered over the wall.

A few days after talking with Wiveca, I meet Anna Lena Mellquist, who runs the Olivia shelter for women on a street lined with pretty wooden cottages in the town of Alingsås in western Sweden.

Mellquist, a 64-year-old local politician and women’s activist, has seen hundreds of women come through the shelter. She says their experience is often similar: “You don’t notice that you are changing yourself to be as he wants you to be. And it’s so slow and you don’t notice,” Mellquist tells me, with the inflection of a fairy tale gone wrong, “and when he started to be more mean to you, he can say, ‘I’m sorry. How could I be so mean?’ And ‘I love you’ and ‘You’re my life’ and everything.”

As Mellquist continues talking I see a flash of Aisha and Graciela in my mind, “… And she forgives him and says, ‘Okay. You had a hard time at work.’ And then perhaps you have bought a house together. Perhaps you have got a little baby. And you are stuck with that. And it comes slowly. And then he takes over your life and you don’t notice.”

A European Union study called “Violence Against Women” puts the domestic violence rate in Sweden at 28 percent, just 1 percent lower than Nicaragua’s. It’s hard to know how underreported domestic violence is, but the figure still shocked me. I didn’t think violence against women was even an issue in Sweden.

As soon as I ask if domestic violence has anything to do with alcohol consumption or the long winter nights in Sweden, I’m politely laughed at. Wiveca quickly sums up the root of domestic violence: “Men are using violence, to be in power, to have the control and power over women. They want to be the one in control and the one who makes the decisions in every aspect of life.”

“Leave him before it’s too late. That’s the best advice to give to a woman who is abused. He won’t change.”

Can we end domestic violence? If so, how? Domestic violence is a complex social issue and there are no simple or easy answers.

But Anna Lena Mellquist has a crystal clear first step. She advises women to reach out to friends to end their isolation: “Talk to them. But you must trust those friends. So, leave him before it’s too late. That’s the best advice to give to a woman who is abused. He won’t change. Sorry to say, but he won’t,” she says with clear conviction, “and I am often right, because some of them didn’t survive who didn’t listen to that advice from someone. So it’s a big problem in the world, I think.”

The victims of domestic violence that I met all managed to pull themselves over and out from behind that wall of isolation. Wiveca reached out to family and friends. She bought an apartment and became an accomplished activist working to prevent violence in Sweden. Her children have all grown up and overcome the experience.

Aisha sought help from Action Aid, a women’s shelter. Thanks to the domestic violence law in Uganda, Aisha’s ex-husband is paying her monthly maintenance. Aisha found work as a cleaner, sweeping Kampala’s busy streets. She continues to thrive on her HIV medicine.

Graciela, whose husband held a knife to their baby boy, is still in hiding at a shelter in Nicaragua, fearful he will find her and kill her. But of course, she still she has dreams. She was able to buy a small plot of land thanks to a government initiative that helps single mothers. Graciela wants to study to be a secretary. Like so many parents around the world, she wants to give her children a better life. The shelter has been her lifeline. In all cases, breaking the wall of isolation was the key.

I interviewed many women who have been abused, and many dedicated women — and men — who are working to prevent domestic violence. Their stories, their courage and their commitment have stayed with me long past our conversations. In Sweden, I was lucky to meet Angela Beausang, one of the founders of the ROKS shelter network, a few days before she retired at the age of 66. Angela believes we all have a role to play:

“If you have a friend who suddenly doesn’t want to go to any party, she doesn’t want to go out, eat dinner with you or go shopping, beware because there might be something wrong. Don’t give up on her.” ❂

This is the written version of a feature story by Lucian Perkins, Susana Seijas, Joanne Levine, and Pierre Kattar originally published on the Orb story site. Check out the multimedia version with videos from victims, advocates, and others here. Read more about Orb on our website.

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