[OPINION] Silence is a killer

It was with regret and astonishment that I met requests from women on my Facebook feed to respect the privacy of the daughters of a woman allegedly killed by her husband. Naturally, their grief must be respected, they must be supported, they have every right to want to deal with this in the confines of their family unit and circle of closest friends. That is their right and I do respect that fully. That their father has been accused of murdering their mom is in the public domain. This is not a time for us to pry into their family business. It is, however, another sad opportunity to not look away from domestic violence and the murder of women by their intimate partners.

In our beloved crying country, 3 to 4 women are murdered this way every day.

With these facts, I attended both court appearances of Robin Packham, who is accused of killing his wife Gill. I have attended court proceedings before after other women were mercilessly and senselessly murdered.

My question is, where are all the people in my and the late Gill Packham’s community who came out in their thousands around this time two years ago to support and unite after the murder of Franziska Blochliger? I don’t know the Packham family; I don’t need to, every eight hours in South Africa a woman is killed by a current or previous partner. That means that since 22 February when Gill Packham was murdered and burned in her own car, approximately 33 more women have died within a relationship they chose.

That her daughters are in deep shock, numbed with trauma, is unquestionable. For them and all those who grieve the unnatural passing of someone they love, I completely empathise. I have been there myself. That they love their dad is not up for doubt either. Unconditional love means that when someone you love does something bad, you don’t stop loving them. You still have the option of looking at the possibility of their innocence or the culpability. That is their process to go through.

But at the same time, talking out about femicide, rape and the attack on women and girls is not disrespecting those impacted at all. Shutting down this uncomfortable conversation enables perpetrators to continue with reckless abandon. When asked what they would do if a woman fought back, a group of imprisoned rapists all responded, “She won’t.” Is this not a place we need to look as we sweep under the carpet, lower our eyes, look away or withdraw from a conversation about somebody’s life and death and the impact on society that it happens so frequently? Silence is a killer, a get-out-of-jail card and I will always enrol others to speak out against this scourge.

Respecting the privacy of Gill Packham’s daughters is relevant. To me, it means not harassing them or bombarding them with enquiries and personal curiosity or making any statements at all about my opinion of their parents, their marriage, and their family life. We really just don’t know. I get that and I support it. But being forced by peers to not talk publicly about what happened is unjustifiable when we live in such a violent society.

Women are vulnerable all the time. In South Africa, the number of women murdered by their partners is five times higher than the global average. Girls in our country have a bigger chance of being raped than educated. We must start somewhere with awareness and raising girls to be women who value themselves, their bodies, their human dignity and rights and that of other women. Why not start at home? When someone is murdered on our doorstep, why we are not involved, interested or active as concerned citizens, building a safer, more just and equal world for our own children and their children?

People sign petitions on social media and pass them along, but when an actual physical action is required, a collective unit of protest and support, we find excuses. Sometimes I feel it is just a little too close to the bone for some who are sadly but possibly impacted by domestic abuse, or are potentially so traumatised that they step back and out. I understand that too. Is it then not more incumbent on the rest of us to build a safe and secure circle for these women to step into and get help, support, care and advice if they ask for it?

If we align what we say we hold as values, our actions should be aligned. As of now, they are not. The majority of women on my feed were offering explanations, intellectualising the difference between the murder of Franziska Blochliger and Gill Packham. For me, none of that matters. What matters is that two women were killed. Why is not relevant to me, that they were murdered is!

Silence is exactly how we as women enable men to commit the most horrendous crimes of abuse against us, everywhere. Sit down, be quiet, and mind your own business. Now I don’t want to know the details of personal relationships that soured. I do want to know why nobody intervened while some of these women were alive. If they did intervene and she was ultimately murdered, can we not join a world of speaking up and out against domestic abuse and murder. Even if just to honour their lives.

I am committed to raising awareness for my own daughter and women everywhere that we are not here as punching bags, less than or to submit to unimaginable forms of abuse and torture. I have two close friends who were raped decades ago and they have told a handful of people. Their rapists get on with their lives, no fear of prosecution and the survivors sip on this poison of ‘quiet about your problems’, ‘don’t shame your family’, ‘what were you doing there’, ‘wearing that’ and a myriad of other accusatory questions, all this while the men are not held accountable!

We need to be proactive and find courage. Courageous does not mean you are not fearful. It means you value life, your life and theirs.

Many times emotional abuse, economic circumstances and trauma keep victims paralysed in dysfunctional relationships. It is easy to be disconnected from this and offer impractical advice or opinions. The more we work together, the easier it will be to come up with innovative solutions to an old and complex problem. Many people are aware of abuse and that they need to call the police and get a restraining order or leave. So what? Many men don’t care about restraining orders. Many women, once they report the abuse, have to go back to the home where it happens. Others prefer to stay and face the abuse than leave and are concerned about when they will be stalked, trapped and murdered anyway.

As a society, we need to create a safe place for women who need to move away from abuse to save their lives and those of their children. We have too many rules which can be broken and not enough practical solutions or interventions to secure safety and survival.

This experience has left me concerned about how much our silence contributes to the continual scourge of abuse against women and children. There must be a connection between the silence, the secrecy and the shame of these atrocities and the increasing rate of suicides among teens and within our communities.

As citizens, we urgently need to engage with the inconvenience of abuse. It is happening around us and we get to choose how we respond! I like psychologist Susan David’s principle of aligning your actions with your values. What do you value every day?

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn