COVID has put the spotlight on abuse, gender based violence and harassment (GBVH) with the home now being the workplace however many still avoid talking about this topic because of the stigma that comes with it – shame, embarrassment, fear and so much more.
What is the best way to confront someone close to you who is experiencing abuse?
It’s not easy approaching someone in an abusive situation especially when there is no hard evidence of abuse and you only have your suspicions as it can have repercussions. The best way to approach a situation like this is as follows:
Where you have suspicions of abuse:
- Approach the person with observations you have made about them/their behaviour that is a concern for you (e.g. I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that you don’t really seem to be yourself these days, you seem rather withdrawn and anxious, is everything ok?)
- Do not force or pressurize them to divulge what is going. Listen with compassion and that you are there to support them if they need. Alternatively encourage them to consider seeking help from a professional or the national support lines like Lifeline, SADAG, POWA etc.
- Keep checking in with them if you are concerned about their wellbeing.
- If you feel their life is at risk (e.g. suicide, life threatening situation etc) then you may need to involve safety resources (e.g. family, police, emergency services etc)
Where you have evidence of abuse:
- Support the person by providing a safe space for them to turn to. Raise their awareness that what they are experiencing is not healthy relationship behaviour, that any form of abuse is unacceptable, and they have legal rights according to the law (e.g. criminal charges etc).
- Let them know that there are support structures out there that they can reach out to if need (e.g. POWA, SADAG, Lifeline etc) that can help them or to speak to a professional.
- Encourage them to put support structures in place such as close family/friends should an emergency situation arise and they need help.
- Encourage them to consider putting an emergency exit plan in place (e.g small bag with a change of clothes, important documents, money, spare phone and charger with emergency contacts etc).
- If the victim does want to leave and would like you to assist them to leave, assist them to get to a safe environment.
Research show that it can take up to 38 counts of abuse before a victim will reach out so even though they may disclose the situation, it does not necessarily mean they will leave their situation or perpetrator. This is largely due to the stigma associated with GBVH and fear of repercussions.
- Most important to note is that: each person has the right to decide who knows about their situation, what their next steps are and they are entitled to confidentiality. From a Legislation perspective any breach of confidentiality infringes on a person’s right to privacy AND goes against the “Do no harm” principle, putting a survivor’s safety and dignity at stake.
Why do some people avoid having this type of conversation with a victim?
There are several reasons why these conversations are uncomfortable to have and someone would not necessarily want to:
- Making assumptions without any real evidence or facts and it turns out to be something completely unrelated which can have a backlash.
- Repercussions for the victim (e.g. violence from perpetrator, rejection by family, friends, community)
- ‘It’s not our business, it’s their private matter’ mentality
- The victim lashing out and shutting the person out or cutting them off and not speaking to them.
- Repercussions from the perpetrator and fear of own safety (e.g. being threatened with a weapon or physical violence)
Could confronting someone about the situation potentially put the abused at risk?
Yes, this may well be the case. The victim may end their relationship with you out of fear of their own safety or yours. They may be feeling embarrassed or ashamed and not want to engage so withdraw from you or shut you out. Each situation is different however if someone is being abused, the risk may be worthwhile especially if it is saving someone’s life and ending their abusive ordeal. No one deserves to be abused and any form of abuse is unacceptable and goes against our constitutional and human rights which is:
- The Right to Life
- The Right to Personal Security
- The Right to Physical and Bodily Integrity
- The Right to Equal Protection under the Law
- The Right to Freedom from Torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment
Why it can be difficult for a victim to recognise that these types of conversations come from a good place
When someone is in an abusive environment, they often don’t seek help because of the stigma associated with the situation. There could also be historical contributing factors such as potential previous attempts of seeking help that went unassisted, or societal factors which often leaves victims disillusioned ie:
- Lack of trust in the judicial system
- Lack of awareness of laws
- Lack of knowledge of their rights
- Fear of repercussions at home, workplace and society
The burden of keeping the secret can have a severe impact on the victim and can result in increased anxiety, depression, symptoms of poor health, and more rapid progression of diseases such as high blood pressure etc
A version of this article also appeared in on News24 here
Paula Quinsee: Relationship Expert and passionate advocate for creating healthy relationships at home, in the workplace, and against GBV, to co-create a more human connected world and positively impact people’s lives. Paula is also an international speaker and author of Embracing Conflict and Embracing No. More info: https://paulaquinsee.com/