By Rayla Melchor Santos Allertsen
I didn’t know of the English idiom “elephant in the room” before.
When I called my web designer and friend Cons Raquel to do the design for www.iamsamfoundation.com, it was clear to her that “IAMSAM” is the conviction to scream for rights for women and children and therefore is “public.” She knew too that this was very personal. Cons asked the question, “so… what means much to you? What would be emblematic?” Straight from my heart, I said, “elephants.” The proverbial lightbulb lit and Cons said, “the elephant in the room?” Stumped, I replied, “no, ah… elephants never forget.” And she said, “Ohhh, I thought, the elephant in the room.” She went on to explain. I cut her short, “Cons, perfect… nothing by chance.” Not incidentally — and I am beyond grateful — the name for the movement I Am S.A.M. comes from Cons’ brilliance too.
“Elephant in the room,” according to Wikipedia, is an English idiom for “an obvious truth that is being ignored or goes unaddressed. The idiomatic expression also applies to an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss. It is based on the idea that an elephant in a room would be impossible to overlook; thus, people in the room who pretend the elephant is not there have made a choice. They are choosing to concern themselves with tangential or small and irrelevant issues rather than deal with the looming big one.” It is ignored for the convenience or comfort of those involved (allwords.com).
Violence — ABUSE — against women and children is the elephant in the room. Somehow, human nature allows it to remain a statistic. Only when it hits close to home and happens to a friend, only when it hits home and happens to a sister, a daughter, to you, does it become real and make sense, though it can never make sense. It will never make sense.
IAMSAM focuses on domestic violence and child abuse. IAMSAM commits to bring to the fore in creative ways this “problem, this difficult issue that is very obvious but is ignored and continues to go unaddressed.”
Domestic violence is domestic abuse, spousal abuse, or intimate partner violence. It is also one form of child abuse. Defined by the Office on Violence Against Women of the US Department of Justice, domestic violence is a “pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” The definition adds that domestic violence “can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, sexual orientation, religion, or gender, and that it can take many forms, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional, economic, and psychological abuse.” Of particular note, Mann points out that “all forms of domestic abuse have one purpose: to gain and maintain total control over the victim. Abusers use many tactics to exert power over their spouse or partner: dominance, humiliation, isolation, threats, intimidation, denial and blame” (1996).
The Superior Court of California, County of Fresno, dedicates a whole spread in its website to domestic violence, with a rather interesting slant and treatment: “It is not [only] a problem with anger. Rarely do you see an abuser act violently with friends, coworkers or a boss. It is a Jeckyl and Hyde personality that confuses others who learn of a person’s violence with their partners. Abusers can act charming, loving and attentive… when they want to. Drinking, drugs, genetics, the victim’s behavior or stress does not cause domestic violence. It is learned behavior. It is learned in the home by observation and reinforcement before the age of 10.”
It is perplexingly complex and baffling for many reasons. When abuse happens, there is disbelief, then denial, which minimizes the abuse so as to seem normal. It is, at times, even a self-protective mechanism to project some semblance of self-respect, to make it appear that this cannot be happening, not to me. Hotaling & Sugarman (1986), further observed that: “similarly, subtle forms of abuse can be quite transparent even as they set the stage for further abuse seeming normal.” It is perplexingly complex and baffling because it is an occurrence within a supposedly intimate relationship that should otherwise be characterized by love and tenderness or, at the very least, respect. For these and more reasons, there is silence, fear, and shame around it.
For the longest time, domestic violence was considered a private matter, a “domestic problem” between spouses or intimate partners, and/or between parent and child. Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, commented: “Domestic violence happens behind walls.” Thankfully, the world has seen through what has been kept hidden behind those walls and within the confines of the home to see what domestic violence really is: “one of the most pervasive of human rights violations, denying women equality, security, dignity, self-worth, and their right to enjoy fundamental freedoms” (Kapoor, 2000).
Abuse is more than hitting. For women who have gone through abusive relationships, many will tell you that the physical aspects of abuse are probably, in relative terms, the least damaging. A scab dries up and falls off. What is most damaging is that which kills the spirit. M. Scott Peck in his book, People of the Lie, made me understand: “There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus, we may break a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.”
The United Nations no less has shown tremendous and pertinent political will through the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993) that states that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.”
The year 2004 was a landmark for women in both hemispheres. For the Filipina, Republic Act 9262, Anti-Violence Against Women and Children, was enacted into law. Interestingly, I also came across in the same year parallel legislation from a country that ruled the Philippines for over 300 years, from 1521-1898. “In Spain, the 2004 Measures of Integral Protection Measures against Gender Violence defined gender violence as violence that is directed at women for the very fact of being women. The law acknowledges that aggressions against women have a particular incidence in the reality of Spain and that gender violence stands as the most brutal symbol of the inequality persisting in Spain. According to the law, women are considered by their attackers as lacking the basic rights of freedom, respect, and power of decision.”
The language, the words used, which I quoted verbatim not wanting to dilute and miss out anything, is so telling. For one, as a Filipino, 300 years of Spanish rule surely has ramifications on the psyche of Filipinos of both genders. On a worldwide scale, it does clearly depict how abuse against women is deeply ingrained in cultures and societies. How many more cultures and societies today perceive women to be deserving of the deprivation of “their basic rights of freedom, respect, and power of decision”? I am indebted to Spain’s honesty and pray other countries take courage to acknowledge and act.
Domestic violence is prevalent. According to the Advocates for Human Rights, “women are victims of violence in approximately 95% of the cases of domestic violence.” The Family Violence Prevention Fund (FVPF) says that one in every three women in the world has experienced sexual, physical, emotional, or other abuse in her lifetime. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that in a range of countries, an intimate partner accounted for 40% to 70% of murdered females.
Perplexingly complex and baffling, the violence and abuse against women and children will continue. No longer should we ignore the elephant in the room. We must choose to act,
I choose to stop abuse. I AM S.A.M., a stop abuse mom. I AM S.A.M., a Shaker And Mover.
Rayla Melchor Santos Allertsen is the Co-founder and President of the I AM S.A.M. Foundation. She has written this article as a contribution to 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls.