“How do you put up with all the misery?” I’m asked almost every day. Some of my friends cannot understand me; in addition to this project, I write novels on the theme of violence against women, books which are also based on huge amounts of research into violence. “Can you sleep at night?”
Yes, I can sleep at night. And I rarely, if ever, cry; not when I meet women with the most appalling stories, and not afterwards.
Which does not mean that I do not care.
The very existence of this project is proof that I care.
But I do not cry.
I think there are (at least) two reasons for this:
One is that I am a professional.
You need a warm heart and a cool head.
I have spent my whole life working as a journalist. I have often written about violence and vulnerability. I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of victims and listened to as many stories. I wrote my first book in Swedish about men’s violence against women as far back as 1979: “Do you beat the person you love?”
If I had not been able to sleep at night I would not have been able to do my job. I would not have wanted to do it.
Journalists create their own strategies for coping. You need a warm heart and a cool head, as Johan von Schreeb, the founder of Läkare Utan Gränser, the Swedish office of Médicins Sans Frontières, put it. The same is true for aid workers, cancer nurses, child welfare officers – and many other people.
You have to become involved and try to find a way to help, without being paralysed. In my case, this means doing research, meeting people, encouraging them to talk, asking the right questions, writing truthfully and compassionately, and preferably in such a way that the people I interview feel they have been seen and are satisfied with the result. Then I have to find a form of publication which will give the widest readership, so that the journalistic work can change the world.
Sitting around crying does not achieve that.
I can become very angry. And the anger gives me a force.
The second aspect is more personal. I am not a particularly emotional person; I am not given to displaying extreme feelings. On the contrary, I am rational and reasoning.
But I can become very angry. And the anger gives me a force.
Like when this project was born. I was writing the epilogue to my novel “Den sjätte gudinnan”, (The Seventh Goddess), and I came across a fact which I had not seen before: the World Bank Group reported that more women in the 15 - 44 age group are killed and harmed as a result of partner violence and rape than die from or are harmed by cancer.
This is outrageous, I thought. What are the health issues the international community invests energy, money and preventive measures in? Certainly not violence against women. It was out of this anger, and with the help of many other angry people, that this project, which we are amazed and proud to see nearing completion, was born
Or, to take another example: I was sitting on the train from the Swedish town of Helsingborg one day, leafing through one of Sweden’s biggest newspapers, Dagens Nyheter. In the social services’ support group for women who have been abused in the past I had heard countless stories about how men insisted on controlling the movements, down to the very last detail, of ‘their’ women. I had spent the following day with the family violence unit of the Helsingborg police force. The cases they deal with involve assault, protection orders and threats on Facebook.
And then on the train, in Dagens Nyheter, I saw an advertisement under the heading: WHERE IS YOUR WIFE RIGHT NOW?
Don’t cry – act!
The company concerned was marketing a “positioning service” allowing people to see where “your children, your husband, your wife, your friends or your colleagues are. Quick and easy. All it takes is a computer, and that the person you want to position has a standard mobile phone.”
It does not take much imagination to understand what the men I had just been hearing about could do with such an opportunity.
I called Dagens Nyheter’s advertising manager and gave him a piece of my mind, and sent an angry email to the company. The following day the positioning manager called me. He wanted my advice as to how he could plan his marketing so it did not include checks which would violate integrity. He was not interested in my main piece of advice – that he should stop selling the product altogether.
I then wrote a debate article in another national paper, Svenska Dagbladet, and took part in a debate. It is possible there may be an investigation into the possibility of stopping this violation of integrity.
That is how I act. To travesty the women’s movement of the 1960s: “Don’t cry – act!”
Meanwhile, I am learning so much, and meeting so many wise people. And I have been struck by the similarities. I think of Swedish Eszter (länk) who is raped in a tent and believes it is her own fault. Or Akhtar in Pakistan who cannot leave her violent husband because it will give her unmarried sisters a bad reputation. Or the woman in the Brazilian favela (read mor in The Radio Station) whose only way out is to send her abusing husband to his death by reporting him to the drugs baron, since the police do not dare to go into the favela. Or Maggie in the US, who felt a sense of responsibility for her unhappy ex-boyfriend, and went to meet him where he was sitting with his shotgun.
Of course there are differences, and of course the violence is more widespread and accepted in countries such as Congo, Pakistan and South Africa. But the structural similarities are great.
As a group, men are ranked higher than women in all societies. Men use violence very much more than women, everywhere.
Men, and families, believe they have the right to control women’s movements and, above all, their sexuality. When the woman protests, maybe even stands up and leaves, the only alternative that remains is the brutal violence.
The more I have worked with the question, the more concerned I have become over all these men who have no other way to deal with their frustration and fear than to raise their fists. Or their shotgun. I am concerned and sad. I wish them a better life too.