*Trigger warning: Domestic Violence*
When I was at the first Female Empowerment Network meeting (which was great – come to the next one!) someone asked me if I thought that Bristol was a good city to be a woman in. Having grown up here and never lived anywhere else, its difficult to say how this space has shaped the women who live here. There are certainly lots of amazing things for women in Bristol and it has a long history of feminist action, but it’s also a deeply unequal city. The question, alongside someone asking why I got involved with Bristol Women’s Voice and hearing about the inspiring project ‘Speak Out’, made me think about growing up here and the problems faced by young women.
I went to school in South Bristol – it wasn’t the worst school, but it certainly wasn’t the best. There was a mix of students, with some suffering from poverty much more than others, extreme bullying that was never tackled by the school in any meaningful way and the aspiration levels of the school for its pupils was very low. There was an enormous amount of sexual harassment between pupils – something I didn’t even realise until I was much older because it was never addressed or tackled. Many of the girls I knew have grown up happy, successful and rounded, but many of them suffered from gender based violence hugely along the way.
This brings me to the question of why I got involved in Bristol Women’s Voice. When I left school, in a less than healthy state of mental health, I met my first serious boyfriend. The relationship was turbulent from the start and went on, stopping and starting, for over two years. In that time, it grew more and more abusive, physically and mentally. The first time I knew something wasn’t right; he smashed things in his room and pushed his mother over, screaming abuse. I don’t know why I stayed, but I did, and things gradually got worse and worse. There were quite a few more incidents, too many to recount; including one where I ran from the house he lived in terror. That night I called the police and attended A&E with a concussion, but didn’t follow through with pressing charges. All the time, I felt like I was losing my grip, tired, telling myself just to get through one more day.
I will never forget talking to the call handler as I waited for the police, afraid of what I would tell my parents, and hearing her tell me that I was stupid for not wanting to tell anyone. The sigh in her voice made me feel even more ashamed. Talking to the police, I felt like a criminal. They were fed up – both that I was making a fuss and that I wouldn’t press charges. Nobody told me that there were people you could speak to, support, counselling which I undoubtedly needed. Now, I realise that the police I spoke to lacked training and didn’t know how to support a young, frightened woman, but at the time, I thought that I was reacting in all the wrong ways but was unable to stop myself. I was terrified of them and terrified of what was happening, and felt frozen in a situation I couldn’t control. I was only 16.
I struggled to end things with him, and when I did he would sit outside the house I lived in with my parents in his car at night. He sent me thousands of emails, texts. He claimed to have mental health problems and guilted me into trying to help him despite knowing that he was abusive. I didn’t know that there were numbers to call with people to talk to and though I wouldn’t have gone to one, I didn’t realise that there were refuges that worked to keep women safe. Nobody told me. Not in school, in A&E or when I met with the police. For a long time afterwards, I questioned my part in the relationship. Was I too difficult, angry, and hard to be around? I have a strong voice and strong opinions – did that cause what happened to me? It took me years to realise that abuse happens because of the abuser, that it wasn’t my fault. Talking about it could have helped.
Listening to Chlo from Speak Out talk about young women in abusive relationships made me realise that despite being really active in the women’s sector, its something that I don’t really much hear about. Being in an abusive relationship as a teenager has its own specific problems and stigma. Teenage girls are often depicted as narcissistic, attention seeking and dramatic – stereotypes that definitely hindered me when I was in an unpleasant situation. As parents, teachers, grandparents, aunties and uncles we need to ensure that we don’t allow stereotypes to stop us listening to our teenage girls – they could be in dire need. The situation I was in was not unusual – two close friends were also in abusive relationships at that age and I knew of many more.
Despite now knowing that it wasn’t my fault and having an enormous amount of respect for the women I’ve known speaking out about their experiences I’ve never been able to completely honestly answer questions about why I campaign for women’s rights in Bristol. I campaign because I want to see a city where young women (and all women) can live free, happy lives, where prejudice doesn’t hinder a woman’s right to be free from abuse. I constantly think of the young women I knew, who were lucky to escape abusive relationships, who are happy and successful now and want that for every woman and girl. I’m happy now, doing the things I want in life and I want that for every little girl growing up in this city.
I refuse to be afraid of talking publicly about my experiences of domestic abuse as a teenage girl, because they still affect me every single day. I want to send love and support to all the girls out there that talk about their experiences, and all those that don’t. To all the girls still suffering – you deserve more, you are strong, and you will survive and you will prosper. Bristol Women’s Voice will be here to make your voices heard whenever you are ready & I will always to listen to you.
Article by BWV Vice Chair Ellie Vowles