Cover Elita Karim now volunteers with abuse survivors in Singapore (Photo: Nin9 Studios)

Elita Karim found the strength to leave an abusive relationship and restart as a management consultant in Singapore. To raise awareness of a crisis affecting one third of women, the survivor shares lessons from her story, including how to spot warning signs and support others

When Covid-19 lockdowns are announced, I think about vulnerable women suddenly stuck at home. I worry about them being abused in what should be their sanctuary and may become their prison. 

I am a survivor of domestic abuse, so I know first-hand how easy it is to become trapped in a relationship and how violence can become accepted as a daily normality.

I come from a close-knit family in Bangladesh. At the age of 28, I fell in love with a man who my family did not approve of. He had been married before, and they believed that he was not right for me. But I loved and stood by him.

It was on the second day of our honeymoon that he first hit me. I remember standing with a buzzing in my ear in total shock and disbelief. He had slapped me so hard that he ruptured my eardrum. The next day, despite him trying to stop me, I went to the hotel reception and called home. My mother told me we would deal with it when I returned. My father stepped in and said that they would help me get a divorce. Despite this, and knowing I had somewhere safe to escape to, I stayed with my husband for another year and a half.

See also: Sumitra Visvanathan Of WAO: Tackling Rising Domestic Abuse In Malaysia During Lockdown

“I had this ingrained belief it is a woman’s responsibility to make a marriage work”

When I look back, I recognise I was in survival mode. I was desperate but hid it from everyone who cared about me because I was embarrassed. They knew that I was unhappy but as a society, we rarely question what happens between couples. The physical abuse continued and, when there was no physical abuse, there was emotional and psychological torment.

My husband put me down constantly; he wrecked my self-esteem and controlled everything. I put on weight and stopped exercising. He would demand my phone and then get cross when there wasn’t anything inflammatory on it. I hid my bank statements because I earned more. I was walking on eggshells but everything I did was wrong. I occasionally escaped to my family home, but I never let on how much I was suffering. 

There came a night in September 2014 when I knew I had to run away. We went out for dinner and my husband drank too much. When we got home, he was goading me. He wanted a fight and when I didn’t respond, he started kicking me. I shouted and told him that he did not know how to respect women. This was the excuse he was looking for and he threw me onto the ground. He then stormed out of the house. I called my brother and my dad but neither picked up; it was one o'clock in the morning, and they were asleep.

In desperation, I rang my sister who was living in London. Her best friend lived near me in Dhanmondi, Dhaka and came over straight away. I left with one outfit and never went back to my husband. I went back a few weeks later to collect my belongings, and the following August, we were divorced. A month later, I moved to the UK to pursue an MBA and piece my life together. 

“I was grieving my failed marriage and the inherent stigma”

I recognise how lucky I am that my immediate family was so supportive. In my extended family, there were waves of shock that this could have happened to me. I was the golden girl with a superb career, love, and health; how could I have found myself in such a desperate situation?

I was also aware that there was a shame attached to the abuse and the divorce. Some simply didn’t know what to say. Others would actively try to excuse my husband’s behaviour. One male supervisor at work suggested I should reach out again because “perhaps he’s sorry”, while my female supervisor refused to give me time off during my divorce as it was just “one of the ups and downs of life”.

I had so many regrets; I was angry towards my ex-husband but I also constantly put myself down. I questioned why I had married him; I analysed why I hadn’t left sooner and I blamed myself for how my life had taken a dramatic downturn while I was being abused.

In the UK, I was still reticent to share my story. I didn’t want people to think that I was damaged. I was worried that I would never be loved again if I told anyone what had happened. I felt alone but would also keep people at a distance.

It wasn’t until I moved to Singapore for work that on an impulse I posted on Facebook about my experiences. The response was beautiful; others shared their stories with me, and I became part of a community. My eyes were also opened to the staggering scale of abuse. Even within my family, two cousins were suffering at the hands of their husbands. 

See also: NGO Founder Mahnaz Lee on Her Decade of Helping Hong Kong's Most Vulnerable

Understanding the prevalence and signs of abuse

According to the WHO, in Southeast Asia, 33 per cent of women and girls are affected by intimate partner violence and 38 per cent of all murders of women worldwide are in the hands of intimate partners. In Bangladesh, only 3 per cent of domestic violence cases filed by women result in conviction. The statistics reveal a story that makes me utterly despair.

Across the world, women fear reprisals if they speak out; they accept pain over the prospect of being stigmatised; and those who help them may be scared that they too will be in danger. Only with education can these cycles of abuse be broken.

We need to teach both women and men that there’s no place for abuse in a relationship and how to recognise the signs and make a safety plan. One key sign of abuse is a sudden change in personality. From extroverted and lively, I remember I quickly became withdrawn and quiet. Victims tend to look stressed or distressed and to let go of friends or relatives to appease their controlling abusers.

At work, my performance spiralled down and when my supervisors inquired, I had no answer. In hindsight, I wish they had followed up by offering me a safe, secure place where I potentially could have opened up. This might have been easier than telling my friends.

What I faced was an embarrassed silence from friends. Some wondered if something was wrong, but didn’t get answers from me so stopped checking in. I know it’s difficult to be there for someone when they repeatedly deny there is a problem, but I wish that just one friend had explicitly told me: “If you ever feel like talking about it, know that I’m here”.

All this said, I recognise that I shut down and didn’t let anyone in. My sister did intuit something was wrong, and I still wouldn’t confide in her. I’ve always been the closest to her and she’s always had my back. I’m glad that I called her on that fateful night when I left my ex-husband. Even from a continent away, she managed to save me.

See also: Why I Go For Therapy and What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started

Supporting survivors as they heal and take back their lives

To start healing, you need to acknowledge where you are in your life. You are a survivor, you went through abuse and trauma; and you decided that you wouldn’t take anymore. You then need to acknowledge that you need help to move on—including support from friends, family, and professionals.

I went for counselling and, subsequently, transformation coaching. This helped me to overcome my guilt, shame, and low self-esteem and to stop seeing the world through the lens of trauma. I remember being tasked to write a letter to myself. I wrote to the newly married Elita on her honeymoon, sitting on the beach in Maldives. Writing to her as the Elita of today and telling her that it’s not her fault helped me immensely. 

Writing down dreams—where you would love to be in six months, a year or even five years—provides an opportunity for soul-searching and, most importantly, allows survivors to hope. I remember the moment when I realised that I couldn’t change my past but that the future was mine. To get to the point where you feel able to dream again instead of simply surviving is monumental.

Now I make a point to talk openly about my experience. I recently recorded a TEDx talk; I spoke at a workshop for Abuse Survivors arranged by Empaths Unity, UK, on “Coping with Grief following Narcissistic Abuse”; and was a guest on the Walking Without Skin podcast, which highlights stories of vulnerability and overcoming adversity.

In 2019, I began volunteering with young mothers and children impacted by abuse. The Star Shelter, which is run by the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations (SCWO), has temporarily suspended its volunteer programme due to Covid, but I continue to donate.

Whether in person or through the web, I hope to reach as many people as possible. If any woman hears my words and feels less alone, I am helping get her one step closer to safety and a better future.

If you or someone you know may be suffering from domestic violence, or you want to donate your support, consider these organisations: RainLily in Hong Kong; AWARE in Singapore; and the Women’s Aid Organisation in Malaysia.

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This personal essay was commissioned and lightly edited by Kate Appleton. A resource for women to become their best selves, Front & Female celebrates trailblazers and tackles timely, provocative issues. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale

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