I was still living in Cuba then and as it was usual for me on those days I was playing dominoes at my neighbour's. Mirth and laughter filled the narrow space we occupied as we banged the black and white pieces on the wooden table. Little did we know how much that joyful atmosphere was about to be altered within a few minutes. The mother sat to one side. Her daughter-in-law was her partner in the game and was positioned across from her. I paired up with one of the sons. We were all absorbed in the game. Although each of us wanted to win, competitiveness was as far removed from our minds as it was possible. Enjoyment mattered more. Then...
He burst through the door and I immediately sensed a sudden change in my companions' mood. He was angry. He was looking for a way to release that anger. He dragged his partner, who had just given birth to his few-months-old son, into the bedroom. He locked the door. And we did nothing. We just sat there looking down. In the meantime he beat her up to within an inch of her life. It was only after she managed to escape from his grip and stormed out of the room that we, or rather, one person intervened. It was his mother. And there was a reason to interfere. He had whipped out a gun and had thrust it into her throat. By now, they were on the balcony. I was a mere five yards away. I was fifteen or sixteen years old. My age at the time eludes me but the events don't. He was finally pushed off her by his younger brother. She was being consoled by the mother. I left. The police were never called. You see, he was a policeman.
Twenty years later and now in the UK, the events I witnessed that night have come back to haunt me. In Great Britain and according to the organisation Justice for Women one in three women will be subjected to violence at some point in their lives and one in six has been raped by her partner. Currently I am working on a special screening in partnership with the Birds Eye View Festival. Until the Violence Stops tells the stories of women from various parts of the world where violence against women is systematic and regular. Research that I have conducted on the subject has produced very odd facts. In the case of domestic violence in this country you'll find that only 2% of violent attacks are reported to the police. Why the disparity, I asked myself? One of the sad reasons is that many women choose to stay with their partner. However, far from vilifying them Daily-Mail style, a little bit of understanding is needed and called for if we are to tackle this heinous deed head-on. In many cases, men use a combination of mental, physical and economic force that step-by-step grinds the woman's will down. Faced with this scenario and the fact that many of these couples have children who will suffer as a consequence of their separation, many women prefer to stick it out with violent partners rather than cut the root of their misery there and then. Men, also, use the children as a weapon against their victims threatening them with social services, although it is worth remarking that social services are more inclined to place a child with its mother than with its violent father.
Another reason why women don't take flight is because in many cases they are yoked to their partners financially. Men often curtail a woman's freedom by controlling all economic matters in the household. This leaves the woman in a very delicate and fraught situation where feeding herself and/or her children becomes rigorous even at a basic level.
And then there's the small matter of a woman coming from a different culture to the UK. Hers is a much more dire quagmire. With no English language skills to shelter her from the hostile environment in which she is, threatened by draconian government laws that would most certainly banish her to the place whence she came and an often-times tightly close community which plays deaf to her cries for help and upon whom she depends for survival, it's not strange that her tale seldom meets a happy ending.
According to Home Office statistics, domestic violence costs the lives of two women every week. In March 2005 and following years of lobbying by pressure groups, a national report was published highlighting the grim and ghastly situation many women in the UK (89% of victims are female) face. It remarked, for instance, how in the age group 19 - 44 years old, domestic violence accounted for a bigger death toll than that of cancer, war and motor vehicle accidents. As a result of this report £14 million were pledged to tackle the problem of domestic violence as well as the creation of a Domestic Violence National Action Plan.
But, without willing to undermine the good and laudable efforts of the Home Office, is this enough? Will this make violence against women stop? More succinctly, will violence against women ever stop? Would £14 million have helped save the lives of Julia Pemberton and Rana Faruqui, just two of the many cases where police incompetence failed to spot the signs that put both women's lives in danger?
Money with no infrastructure in place is like water off a duck's back. Whilst the erstwhile Home Secretary John Reid pledged a grant of £2 million to unravel across the country in the form of 'Maracs' (multi-agency risk assessment conferences), the rest of the nation has seen a decline in conviction rates for rape (5.3% at the last count). Rape crisis centres, the frontline default place most victims of sexual assault go to when in distress, face a continuous funding ordeal, with some about to close shop forever.
But if the situation in the UK looks dire, we need look no further than Iraq to assess the havoc that the US-led 2003 invasion has wreaked, especially on women. In an interview with the German Internet magazine, Telepolis, Houzan Mahmoud, coordinator of The Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq', states that 'almost everyday armed groups kidnap, intimidate or murder young girls and women.' According to Houzan, 'women in Iraq live a more dangerous existence nowadays than before. Especially if they try to stand their ground against the perpetrators.'
Rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, genital mutilation, these are but a few of the elements that make up violence against women all over the world and the sheer diversity of them plus the amalgamation with other factors like culture, religion and politics renders even the most optimist of human beings forlorn and despondent.
Will the screening of this film change people's attitudes? Will those 32 rape crisis centres left in England and Wales (down from 84 in 1985) be saved from closure? Will similar cases like Doaa Khalil Aswad, beaten, kicked and stoned to death by a mob of excited men for having fallen for a Sunni boy in Kurdish Iraq, be prevented or even better cease to happen? Will the showing of this documentary stop more women, like Salima (not her real name), a female failed asylum seeker, from being deported back to their countries where they face torture, rape and possibly death?
The answer is I don't know. But it's a long way I've come since that evening when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, my age at the time eludes me but the events don't, when my eyes witnessed the death of innocence.
Until The Violence Stops
Dir. Abby Epstein, USA 2005
Eve Ensler's award winning book The Vagina Monologues has grown from an award winning play to an international grassroots movement to stop violence against women and girls. Until The Violence Stops documents women from Harlem to Ukiah, California; from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Philippines and Kenya - just some of the 800 cities around the world who participated in V-Day benefit stagings of The Vagina Monologues.
Director Abby Epstein takes a poignant journey into the hearts of women and includes revealing testimonies from men, who expose social and cultural attitudes that perpetuate the pervasive violence against women. In emotionally charged interviews and performances, everyday women and celebrities (including Rosie Perez, Salma Hayek and Jane Fonda) embrace their bodies, reconcile their past, and bond together to break the silence that surrounds abuse.
More than just testimonies and performances, Until the Violence Stops is a film about empowerment and the importance of dialogue in the healing process. A celebration of women reclaiming their bodies and lives, this moving documentary leaves us with hope that change can happen.
Wednesday 12 September
6.30pm (doors will open at 6pm)
54-56 Market Square
Admission fee: £3
For bookings and information call 020 8 887 9500
Or e-mail mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
There will be a Q&A session after the screening with speakers from various women's organisations like Family Justice Centre, Latin American Women's Rights, Birds Eye View Festival and Women's Aid.