I knew the number would be high, but I wasn't prepared for 67 per cent.
According to a new survey released today by the Canadian Women's Foundation, that's the percentage of Canadians who personally know a woman who's been physically or sexually abused.
Personally, I know dozens of women who have experienced violence, but then I've worked in women's organizations for many years.
There's my university friend who got married and went into a glamorous corporate career. She was always smiling, and seemed to have the perfect family. But behind closed doors, she lived in a private hell. Like most domestic abuse, it began with insults and name-calling. Over time, it escalated into physical abuse that finally got so bad she was forced to lock herself and her infant daughter in the bathroom to sleep -- it was the only door her enraged husband couldn't break down.
There's the professional writer who'd been sexually abused by her older brother from age 11 until she ran away from home at 17. She didn't tell anyone until her thirties, when her self-loathing and substance abuse got so bad she found a therapist. Still, it took a full year of counselling for her to even mention the abuse.
There's the Rhodes scholar who was stalked by a male acquaintance for years, to the point where she feared for her life and rarely went anywhere alone. She never went to the police because she was afraid that somehow -- even though she couldn't imagine how -- she had encouraged him. Even years later, you could still see the fear in her eyes. And she continued to blame herself.
There's the realtor who isolated herself from her family and friends to hide that her boyfriend would regularly leave her bloody and bruised. She'd been knocked unconscious, lost teeth and once he trapped her in a dark room for three days. Then she finally reached that door at the end of the hall and escaped. She lived in silence for years but now courageously uses her voice and her story to help others understand that the women who are abused are someone you know.
I know these stories because of the kind of work I do. Many women never tell anyone, and for good reason.
My university friend was convinced no one would one would believe her. In public, her husband seemed wonderful. She feared her friends would think her mad, that she would be blamed for the abuse. Then one day, she somehow found the courage to tell me.
If 67 per cent of Canadians already know a woman who's been physically or sexually abused -- when women rarely tell because they fear being blamed or not believed -- imagine what that number would be if the silence ended.
If someone you know is experiencing abuse, here's what you can do:
- If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or the emergency number in your community.
- Put her safety first. Never talk to anyone about abuse in front of their suspected abuser. Unless she specifically asks for it, never give her materials about domestic abuse. Never leave information through voice messages or emails that might be discovered by her abuser. However, abuse thrives in secrecy, so speak up if you can do so safely.
- If she wants to talk, listen. If she doesn't, simply tell her she does not deserve to be harmed and that you are concerned for her safety. Ask her if there is anything you can do to help, but don't offer to do anything that makes you uncomfortable or feels unsafe.
- If she decides to stay in an abusive relationship, try not to judge her. Remember, leaving an abuser can be extremely dangerous. Sometimes, the most valuable thing you can offer a woman who is being abused is your willingness to listen.
- Learn about emergency services in your community, such as your local crisis line, women's shelter or sexual assault centre. Search online, or consult the front pages of your telephone directory.
If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or the emergency number in your community right away. Also, make sure you are aware of listed community numbers and helplines and save them in your contact list.
"Never talk to anyone about abuse in front of their suspected abuser. Unless she specifically asks for it, never give her materials about domestic abuse or leave information through voice messages or emails that might be discovered by her abuser," according to the Foundation.
If she wants to talk, listen. If she doesn't want to talk, simply tell her that you are concerned about her safety. Offer help, but don't offer to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
If she stays in the relationship, try not to judge her. Remember, she has to make her own decisions and leaving an abuser can be extremely dangerous.
Follow Sandra Hawken Diaz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hisandrahawken