With women facing a crisis of justice when it comes to gender-based violence, survivors are turning to creative ways to process trauma and tell their own stories
“I felt I needed to get proof,” Victoria Forrest said. “I would have a document to say, ‘this is not a figment of my imagination’. This happened. And this was the story.”
When Forrest decided to leave the man who physically abused her, she went to the police and reported the violence. She gave a statement. She waited patiently as they took photographs of her bruises. And then, like millions more women around the country, she was later told that he would not be charged or convicted.
But that wasn’t the end of her story.
Forrest decided to request her police records and collect the evidence of her report, which she has now turned into an art book called This Is My Proof. The book is unflinching – photos of her bruises and her statement laid out as it was recorded. “He would grab me on my arms to hold me, he did this so tightly that he would cause bruising. He would shout at me… I would see in his face that he was full of anger and I didn’t know why.”
“I got the evidence to protect myself initially,” Forrest said. “If someone tried to attack me for saying what he had done, I would have a document to say it happened, regardless of what the outcome was. When it came through – I was expecting just the statement. I wasn’t expecting the photographs. I saw them and I burst into tears. Because I look so sad.”
Forrest used one of the photos in a call-out to design posters for the domestic abuse charity Refuge. She then co-founded a project called Gaslighting Art, which encourages women to create art about their experiences of gender-based violence, as well as share resources. From there, the decision to create a book based on her evidence was born.
“Holding the evidence in your hand makes it tangible,” Forrest said. “A book does that. With the abuse – we can put it in a box, we can hide it away, decide we don’t want to think about it. By putting it in the book, I can pick it up, I can touch it and I can claim my story. It’s cathartic in a way. And it takes the power away from him. Because now I can choose what to do with that book – I can archive it, I can display it, I can throw it away or give it to someone else.”
The past year has seen male violence against women and girls put under the spotlight in the most devastating way.
The murder of Sarah Everard, by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, and the criminal behaviour of officers investigating the murders of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, raised questions about women’s safety and trust in the authorities. This was followed by the killings of Sabina Nessa, Bobbi-Ann McLeod, and 12-year-old Ava White – four of the 133 women killed so far in 2021 where a man has been the primary suspect.
An estimated 1.2 million women experience domestic abuse in England and Wales in a year, and approximately 85,000 women are raped. And yet, the majority of those women – like Forrest – will never see their perpetrators convicted. Rape prosecutions are at a historic low of 1.97%, while referrals of suspects of domestic abuse-flagged cases from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision fell 19% between 2019 and 2020.
Little wonder then, with ‘proof’ not being provided with a conviction, women are seeking new ways to share their proof and to tell the world what abuse has meant in their lives.
Finding Freedom in Writing
“We are writing from our hearts,” said a group of migrant women subject to immigration control who have put together a poetry anthology titled This Is We.
The women are supported by Safety4Sisters, a charity based in Manchester which set up a writing group in which members could write poems and short stories to express their experiences of trauma, violence and the asylum system. The women included those seeking asylum, on spousal visas, EU citizens and those who had been granted leave to remain during their time taking part in the group.
“All of us have a trauma of violence and of society putting women down but we are shaking this off, find our courage and power in words,” they said,
For the women, many of whom have endured gender-based violence only to be re-traumatised by a hostile asylum system, coming together to write was a chance to explore their emotions and feelings as survivors of abuse. Perhaps even more importantly, it offered a space where they could start to see “possibilities outside of our own experiences of abuse”.
“We have learnt a freedom in writing that some of us have never had,” the women explain in the introduction to the collection.
The poems explore violence, gender stereotypes, resilience, mothers and daughters, survival, and the experiences of the asylum system. It does not make for easy reading. The pain is often raw on the page. Like Forrest’s book, they create a form of ‘proof’, when many women seeking asylum in the UK have faced a culture of disbelief. The creative process helped them to feel heard as individuals – as human beings, not just a migration status.
“Women have described their experiences of the asylum system as a revolving hell,” write Sandhya Sharma and Amber Lone, who supported the women to create the anthology.
“They are traumatised by their abuser and re-traumatised by the immigration system. They are required to recount endless regurgitations of the abuse they’ve suffered, to disbelieving officials of a hostile state.”
Through poetry and art, the women can take control back over their stories, be heard and be believed.
“Women speaking up is never benign – they become the site of disruption which is incredibly dangerous and potentially volatile,” Sharma said. “Their bravery is incredible.”
For refugee Yazidi women living in displacement camps in Iraqi Kurdistan, similar solace was found in creating art and poetry to process gender-based violence and conflict.
In a joint project organised by the University of Bristol and the University of Sulaimani, refugee women in Bristol and the camps were encouraged to take part in creative workshops to give voice to their experiences.
“We wanted to use arts-based and creative approaches to this issue to allow those taking part, in both the UK and Iraqi Kurdistan, different ways to communicate their experiences of both violence and displacement,” said Dr Emma Williamson of the University of Bristol.
The workshops invited women to take part in theatre, music, writing and visual arts. Yazidi women described the trauma that they have endured, including surviving abduction and sexual violence by members of ISIS. For many, it was a first chance to explore, in a creative and healing way, how they had survived the horrors of conflict, rape and displacement.
The women saw the workshops as a “window of hope”, the facilitators described.
“I learned to express my sorrows and anguish through writing and telling my story,” said one of the participants. Another shared how the workshops provided an opportunity “to let go [of] many sorrows that were buried in my chest. I learned to draw the beautiful places that I loved. I knew kind faces and friends who sympathised with me and provided help and support.”
Victoria Forrest now hopes that other women will join her in requesting their evidence and creating their own art books to bring their proof to life – or take part in the Gaslighting Art project and share their creative responses to gender-based violence.
“So many women go through this,” she said. “And so many women don’t see their abusers convicted, or the case gets stopped before that can happen. That’s a gaslighting process. It’s really important to say: here is my evidence. Here is my proof.”
Written by Sian Norris is Byline Times’ Chief Social and European Affairs Reporter. Published in the Byline Times