“Were you silent or were you silenced,” Oprah Winfrey asked Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, in an especially powerful moment of the interview that rattled the world.
This is a question that as women, we should all ask ourselves. When was the last time we raised our voice for ourselves and others? What prevents us from doing so?
My name is Kaanita Iyer, and I am a breaking news intern at USA TODAY.
It’s been a little over a year since I successfully left an abusive relationship after several attempts, but sometimes I still find my voice shaking when I tell my story. I fear being blamed for not leaving sooner or getting myself in that situation in the first place — just like the judge did when I filed for a protective order.
My story is not unique. From the workplace to the household to coming forward with our stories, many women — across all walks of life and regardless of race and financial standing — struggle to be heard and are rarely given the safe space, and support, to do so.
But first, we take a moment to acknowledge Tuesday’s shootings and the rise in anti-Asian hate:
- Georgia spa shootings: Suspect officially charged after 8 people killed at 3 businesses; most victims were Asian
- There’s been a rise in anti-Asian attacks.Here’s how to be an ally to the community.
- Opinion: Asian Americans aren’t here for you to objectify, ridicule or kill in Atlanta shootings
- Atlanta spa shootings: Illicit reviews raise red flags that shooter targeted vulnerable women
- Will Atlanta shootings spur action on anti-Asian hate crime laws?
- Atlanta spa shootingsincrease fear in Asian communities amid increase in violence, hate incidents
- ‘Stop killing us’: Attacks on Asian Americans highlight rise in hate incidents amid COVID-19
One in three women will experience rape, physical violence and/or stalking in their lifetime, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. On average, 24 people will survive these issues per minute. Twelve million men and women are impacted per year.
In her interview with Meghan, Winfrey asked her how much she knew about the royal family and how prepared she was to marry into it.
Prepared is something women are always expected to be: We are expected to avoid walking alone at night; to carry pepper spray or learn self-defense; to leave before situations escalate; and even watch what we wear and be mindful of the “vibe” we give off.
But how prepared can one be as a woman? Are we supposed to expect that bad things will happen to us constantly? And, more importantly, why is the burden of responsibility always on us?
When FKA Twigs filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf for abuse, CBS’ Gayle King asked her: “Why didn’t you leave?” Just a few weeks later, Norah O’Donnell asked Charlotte Bennett, an accuser of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the same question.
So why do survivors stay?
While Twigs refused to answer the question, Bennett responded, “It didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
Many survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault fear the situation may get worse if they leave. Some don’t have the means to: They might be facing physical barriers or restraints, or are not financially able to leave. Others don’t have knowledge of – or access to – resources.
In the news:
- Gayle King asked FKA Twigs ‘Why didn’t you leave?’ Her question is part of the problem.
- No one is saying it’s rape.They’re saying the accusations against Andrew Cuomo matter.
- Some people don’t believe Meghan was suicidal, and that can be so dangerous.
Regardless of the reason, it is never appropriate to ask a survivor why they didn’t leave, even if it is out of concern. It often doesn’t allow a woman to open up about her experience as intended. Instead, it stifles her voice as there are many factors that could be behind the reason to stay.
Instead, a supporter should listen, validate the survivor’s experience and ask how they can help, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation. The supporter also should educate themselves on resources available so they can connect a survivor with help, the advocacy organization also suggests.
Three out of four incidents of sexual assault go unreported, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest Nation Network (RAINN). Similarly, nearly half of domestic violence cases are not reported with women four times more likely as men to not report, according to the Crime Report.
Both studies found that fear of retaliation is the most common reason the survivor gave for not reporting.
One of my favorite poems, “Legacy” by Rupi Kaur, reads: “I stand / on the sacrifices / of a million women who came before me / thinking / what can I do / to make this mountain taller / so the women after me / can see farther.”
I want to help leave behind a world for those after me where women don’t have to stay silent in fear or have to scream to be heard and believed.
Standing in front of the judge and retelling my story was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. But I knew I had to do it.
I had to do it for other women my abuser could put in harm’s way. I had to do it for all the women who were silenced before me but were able to speak up. And most importantly, I had to do it for those who may come after me and find their voices shaking too as they tell their stories.
Other recent survivors have said they shared their stories for similar reasons.
When Cuomo’s first accuser, Lindsay Boylan, detailed her experience in a blog post on Medium, she tweeted that she “never planned to share the details of my experience working in the Cuomo administration, but I am doing so now in hopes that it may make it easier for others to speak their own truth.”
Bennett told the New York Times that she agreed to share her story because “she felt an obligation to other victims.” And in a statement that followed, she reassured other survivors of Cuomo that came forward shortly after: “I am here.”
“If you choose to speak your truth, we will be standing with you,” she wrote. “I promise.”
Each story allows others to come to light as it may allow a survivor to feel validated and not alone. It also lessens the taboo around the topics of sexual harassment, assault, domestic violence and other such issues, which may lead to more resources and awareness.
Public disclosure of trauma is a choice, one that many don’t have the privilege of, or simply don’t feel comfortable doing.
But if you do, please raise your voice. If you’re an ally, please do the same. There is extraordinary power in it. And it may just make things easier for those after us.
- Gift from Within is a non-profit organization that provides educational material and support for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Pandora’s Project offers peer support to survivors of sexual assault, sexual abuse and rape.
- The GLBT National Help Center operates a free and confidential peer-counseling service for survivors from the LGBTQ community.
- Women’s Law Project connects survivors with national and local resources, offers legal advice, such as how to file a protective order, and provides safety tips.
- The YWCA offers housing, counseling, job training and other services for survivors.
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