On February 13th, Reeva Steenkamp was writing a speech she was meant to deliver the next day to commemorate ‘Black Friday Campaign for Rape Awareness’, following the death of a 17-year-old girl named Anene Booysen, who had been gang-raped in an extremely brutal manner outside Cape Town. According to the U.S. State Department, there were 64,500 reported rapes, one every four minutes in South Africa in 2011–12 — the highest occurrence in the world.
Steenkamp, an activist, model and graduate law student, never got to deliver her speech. She was shot dead by her then boyfriend Oscar Pistorius at his apartment on Valentine’s Day 2013.
I was living in Brooklyn, New York, at the time and it was one of those crisp chilly New York mornings. The news hit me hard; it brings tears to my eyes to relive that morning. The murder of Steenkamp happened less than two and half years after my own violent relationship had ended and I was still on my way to healing, surely but slowly. I had finally started to find the words (in private) to describe what had happened and also to forgive myself for not magically seeing it coming. The social activist within me had raised its head but I was still very much half-formed and timid. I remember how the news sucked me online for hours and hours. I was reading about the events, the trial, about interpersonal violence in general. I was shocked and horrified to learn and become aware of the ways in which society tolerates and perpetuates interpersonal violence, of how it imposes shame on victims and forces us to defend ourselves and our dignity.
“Even if you did tell someone, they would never believe you”, my Ex-boyfriend used to say.
I used to be one those people who deep down thought that domestic violence was somehow, at least partly, the victim’s fault. This was until I fell prey to the manipulation and learned how it was all about exerting power over someone, how the perpetrators simply don’t play according to the same rule book as the rest of us and are therefore hard to spot to the untrained eye. I came to understand the shame that society imposes on the victims and survivors, and how the system serves the perpetrator with its oftentimes deadening silence. I also saw how affluent perpetrators often either avoid sanctions altogether or have them significantly reduced.
The biggest tragedy in my own case wasn’t ultimately the physical abuse, all the times my Ex called me with derogatory names, or the shaming and diminishing that became my inner narrative for years afterward.
The biggest tragedy was that I believed his lie that nobody would care or believe me. By ultimately believing him, I allowed him to steal my most important possession — my autonomy.
The tragedy is that the society does not care enough and that those who could make the difference — the bystanders who are the fulcrum of change — fail to raise their voice, stand up and become as organized as the perpetrators often are.
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
-Late human rights activist Elie Wiesel
Somewhere, amidst this collective trauma of millions of us reliving Reeva’s nightmare again and again on that Valentine’s day in 2014, I experienced an awakening and a transformation of my consciousness. I felt the force of a new kind of deep inner imperative to stand up and resist. Later, I would learn that this strong gut feeling I had that day — my embodied calling — would transform everything in my life irreversibly, and in the most positive, powerful, courageous way.
In June the same year, during a science conference where I was invited to deliver my first ever presentation, I shared my story in public for the first time. I remember being so nervous just being on stage that I nearly fainted before the speech.
The moment I spoke about my abuse, the spell broke. The dozen or so individuals, men and women, who came to speak with me after the presentation, sharing stories from their own life or that of someone they knew, affirmed that I had done something of importance. Sharing my own most frightening secret opened a safe space for others to open up to me in return.
Now the violence I once experienced has become but one story among the many that are part of the accumulated narratives that comprise my life. Discovering my sisu has allowed me to transform from a survivor into an overcomer, and ultimately an avid activist for nonviolence, human rights, and peace. I’m ‘awake’, and will never go back.
Last year, I went on to found a global campaign called Sisu not Silence to end the silence around interpersonal violence. It is my way of showing I will give this cause everything I have and that I’ll never again fail to protest against injustice or abuse toward anyone, myself included. Its purpose is to invite people, across geographic boundaries, to unite to build a culture of zero tolerance to abuse, may it be within our families, schools, workplaces or on our streets.
Changing the narrative around interpersonal violence is long overdue. We are not weaklings, ‘damaged goods’ or somehow responsible for our own trauma. We are bold, beautiful and badass individuals blessed with deep inner strength and wisdom, with bright futures ahead of us. I built Sisu not Silence to invite my fellow survivors and overcomers to embrace the fact that there’s life on the other side of even a violent trauma and that we need to put to blame where it belongs — on the perpetrators and those who enable them. Violence, exploitation, and abuse should never be excused. The project seeks to give the spotlight to the brave and ordinary women and men, who may have been exposed to emotional, physical or sexual hurt but who are living, healing, transforming, leading and growing. I don’t care if you’re moving slowly or stumbling. YOU are a warrior and when we come together we are stronger than the adversities we are facing.
I see a lot of beauty around me nowadays. I’m extremely lucky to say I have friends and family, who care for me and whom I get to celebrate. However, I doubt I will ever again celebrate on Valentine’s Day.
February 14, 2013 changed all that for me.
On that day, I will not be having a candlelit dinner, dress up or send cute messages. Instead, I will get to work and be present for those who suffer unjustly. I will do whatever I can with my particular gifts and passion for creating a future, where social media messages commemorating individuals like Reeva or Anenen, and the millions whose stories we will never hear, do not exist. I will get to work, lace up and go the extra mile.
And that’s what I’ll do, day after day until we truly make a difference.
This post was originally published at Medium on Valentine’s day 2017. The author, a researcher and speaker, is currently training to run 1,500 miles across the length of New Zealand at the end of 2017 to change the narrative around interpersonal violence and celebrate the strength of overcomers globally.
You can find out more about sisu and the Sisu not Silence campaign at Emilia’s Indiegogo Generosity fundraiser page and at sisunotsilence.com.
Main photo courtesy of Chris Ensey at unsplash.com. Thank you!