“I’m not brave, I’m afraid, but I have no choice.” 
Hina Jilani, human rights lawyer, Lahore, Pakistan
Linda's reflections

Ten countries in about a year is hard work. There have been times when I have felt that the world is a darker place than I could ever have imagined. The sum of all the statistics and the women we have met multiplied by millions adds up to immeasurable misery, and spending almost all your time with it would make anyone despondent.

I will never forget when the head of a women’s organisation in Pakistan commented on the floods of 2010 which put a fifth of Pakistan under water:  “At least one good thing has come out of this flooding,” she said. “The women will be forced to go outside their homes.” It was said with a touch of sarcasm but it was true. Many women in Pakistan are never allowed to leave their homes.

But people also do the most amazing things and overcome life experiences which are so extreme that I would probably have taken my life if I had been in the same situation. One meeting in particular which made a strong impression on me was with Blessing. We met her in a women’s shelter in Johannesburg where she had been living for a year. When Blessing comes into the room she greets us and sits down in a chair, avoiding our eyes. We begin to ask questions and she tells us slowly, speaking softly, about sexual abuse she suffered as a child, about gang-rape after gang-rape, and how one of these resulted in her becoming pregnant with her daughter.

I begin to think that maybe she does not want to tell us her story.

During her entire story her gaze darts around in every direction except ours. I begin to think that maybe she does not want to tell us her story. She continues to share with us how difficult it has been for her to love her child, and how she became a heroin addict. Finally it is time for me to photograph her, and I ask her to look into the camera. She does not say a word, and I see her try, and struggle, but she cannot do it. I do not have a single picture where she is looking straight at me. When I walk to her room with her a few minutes later I see her embrace and play with her daughter. It was honest love, from someone who has also spoken on TV about what she has been through, and who, at that time, had managed to stay off drugs for a year.

I must confess there have been times when it has been too much. At times I have only been half-present during interviews which have been particularly hard to bear, and the part I have left at home is my heart. Sometimes you do not want to understand what it means that around 40 per cent of all women in South Africa have been raped. Or to hear about women in Russia who call the police after a serious assault only to hear: “We’ll come when you’re dead.”

I have had to fight against a feeling that I am not showing respect when I have been unable to be present with all my heart. 

I have had to fight against a feeling that I am not showing respect when I have been unable to be present with all my heart. And with the feeling that I am not doing my job well enough if I am not all there. Violence against women is an extremely difficult subject to photograph. It is possibly the most challenging and frustrating thing I have ever done. The violence that is so incredibly common, so dangerous, and which permeates every society on earth, is also invisible. You cannot photograph a man beating his wife; I only know one person who has ever succeeded and it took her nine years.

For me, the key to balance and a better world lies with women like Blessing. She is just one of many examples we have met. We have also met Cathy in the US, who talks openly with her son about how he was influenced by having a violent man involved in his upbringing. Gulnaz in Pakistan, who has lived with serious burns injuries for 20 years, yet tells us that neither she nor anyone else in her village thinks about it any longer. And Zeinab, the mother of Badour, the victim of genital mutilation, who tells us that she refused to accept bribes even though she was so poor, and instead talked about her daughter’s death in the media. To name but a few. All these women are the solution in my eyes. By standing up and talking about their problems they give us the gift of knowledge, at the same time as they lift the burden of shame from themselves and others.

By standing up and talking about their problems they give us the gift of knowledge, at the same time as they lift the burden of shame from themselves and others.

For violence against women is a difficult issue and we need knowledge. In the case of partner violence, for example, I believe that one of the biggest obstacles is that the problem in its entirety, and the behaviour of the victim, are so difficult to understand. Some time ago I tried to explain to my boyfriend where the line goes between a relationship which is not working and mental violence. And even though I have put my soul into understanding this for a year and a half, I was not really successful. One important ingredient is manipulation. It makes the abused person lose her sense of what is right and wrong, of her own opinions and of her perception of reality.

There are clear signals including jealousy and the abuser wanting the relationship to develop quickly, but it is the sum of the parts that makes it abuse. That is the best way I can describe it, but I would recognise it instantly. One woman we met in Spain told us she could “see it in the eyes” of the men she dates. After she broke out of an abusive relationship it was as if she had been given the gift of being able to recognise when the person sitting opposite her could be a danger to her.
But the solution to the problem does not really depend on everyone fully understanding the problem. The solution is more straightforward than that.

It was as if she had been given the gift of being able to recognise when the person sitting opposite her could be a danger to her.

It is wrong to manipulate. It is wrong to abuse. It is wrong to control. If we can all agree on that, and create societies where people really are of equal worth, and thereafter learn to recognise the characteristics of violence and to react, we can also help the victims to see that the violence is not their fault. That insight erases the shame and the blame that most victims feel and in some cases never let go of. And that means more people will dare to break the circle of violence. 

Linda Forsell