You know what I don’t understand?
People who don’t understand. And the people who only manage to understand when presented with a situation that has been pushed to an absolute clear-cut extreme I find the least understandable of all. The latest example to have me gnashing my teeth and climbing the walls is the story of Geeta and Neetu Mahour, who made headlines recently because they have been living with the man – husband and father respectively, Inderjeet – who, 25 years ago, poured acid on them as they slept.
Why? Because, in their poverty-stricken rural Indian village, without independent earning power, with Neetu blinded by the attack and subject to immense social pressure and hostility, they had no other choice.
Their story has been greeted, rightly, with outrage, sorrow and compassion. But what I want to ask is – why does it take so dramatic an example to rouse it?
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The Mahours’ situation is the situation of all domestic violence victims writ large. And yet so scant is the sympathy and empathy for the vast majority of them (and it is estimated that one in four – a quarter, a quarter of all women – will experience abuse from a partner at some point in their lives) that refuges have to be run as charities, and the public funds they do get are always among the first to be cut.
Three quarters of women fleeing DV are currently having to be turned away from shelters. And those fleeing, it is worth emphasising, are a tiny minority of those suffering. They are the few who have either managed to get enough money, documents and support from family and friends to leave, or who have finally been put in such fear of becoming one of the two women a week murdered by their partners that the possibility of homelessness, and all the other vulnerabilities and desperations that brings, has become the better option.
And we still can’t, don’t, won’t take care of them. “But why did she stay?” the people who don’t understand ask.
The lack of funding for women’s charities and shelters stems from this apparent inability to put themselves in an abused women’s shoes and know that they are not weak or complicit but terrified and powerless. And yet, the reception of the Mahours’ story shows that this inability is indeed only apparent. It can be found if the situation – the fear, the poverty, the absolute lack of options – is made stark enough.
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If the suffering and the potential for more is literally written on the victims’ faces. Why can’t the powers that be feel for the many as for the few?
The fundamentals of any violent relationship are the same. Choices are as easily constrained in a London flat as a village hut by someone bent on harm. If you have children, you can only go somewhere or to someone who can look after you all. You may have friends and family never worthy of the name, or only those wrestling with other problems of their own, or your abuser might have successfully isolated you from them even if you once had an abundance of close relationships with people who could throw cash at you if only they knew you were in trouble. And this is all without whatever mental as well as physical damage has been wrought on you over the years by repeated violence.
We shouldn’t ask why women stay – we should ask how it came to be that wherever they are, it can be impossible for them to leave.