“At first it feels good
quite incredibly and tremendously good
that in spite of everything
there also are people who see
behind the façade
But then everything
gets only more difficult
Then the question comes:
Why don’t you leave?
Innumerable times I’ve been
on my way
if this drinking bout isn’t
then I’ll leave
if this malice affects
then I’ll leave
if he also starts
then I’ll leave
and if he ever uses force
then I’ll leave
when the children can no longer
then I’ll simply have to
And all of it happened
Still, I didn’t leave
This poem by the Finish author Märta Tikkanen illustrates the complexity of domestic violence. The finale question “Why?” has no easy answer. We need to recognize and communicate this complexity in order to understand, reach and help the victims of domestic violence.
As Chairman of The Mary Foundation in Denmark, I am very pleased to be here this evening and to take part in the Second World Conference of Women’s Shelters. In the Mary Foundation we focus on domestic violence and run a number of projects aimed at breaking the cycle of violence. It is deeply encouraging for me to see the devotion and engagement of all of you. This conference gives us the opportunity to share knowledge and experience, to be inspired and to develop new solutions. An opportunity to gather all the good work done locally and make a difference globally.
Domestic violence is still a dark secret. Reaching the victims of domestic violence is one of our main challenges. It is essential to reach out to these women with a helping hand, to support them in taking those initial and courageous steps out of a life of violence. At this conference we are giving women who live with domestic violence a voice and we are saying to the world that domestic violence is not an individual problem – but a collective concern. And today we make it absolutely clear ¬– violence is never acceptable and can never be justified!
Let me give you a little insight into the Danish situation. In Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, we have a strong tradition for freedom of speech. We speak out. Topics like domestic violence are addressed by the media and politicians. And the need for women’s shelters are widely acknowledged – and partly supported publicly. So in this respect we are fortunate.
However, speaking out loud is often easier, when you are not speaking on your own behalf. The woman, who is living with violence, may not even realize that she is a victim. And if she does, does she have the strength and the courage to speak out and change her situation?
At least 28.000 women in Denmark live with domestic violence. 2.000 seek refuge at women’s shelters every year. That leaves 26.000 women – some might find support through friends and family, but a very large majority is alone with their problems. This is a huge challenge. How do we reach these women?
Domestic violence affects not only the person, who is the subject of the actual abuse. Witnessing domestic violence can be just as harmful, and it is critically important to recognize the needs of the children. A home is meant to be a safe place, a place where children can count on people to care for them and protect them. When that safe place becomes a place of fear and unpredictability the children suffer. A little girl might become withdrawn from life and hide her feelings. A little boy might become violent, because he knows no other way to resolve a conflict. And most likely they won’t tell anyone about their situation, because of their love, loyalty and fear. So how do we speak to the little girl and the little boy? We start by daring to ask and to listen.
Domestic violence is a problem in Denmark. Too many women live with violence and become more and more isolated – from work, from friends and from family. That is why we in the Mary Foundation took up the challenge to fight domestic violence.
The Mary Foundation was established in 2007 with the mission of preventing and alleviating social isolation. And victims of domestic violence are a very isolated group in our society, which is why it became one of our main focus areas in 2008. We wanted to contribute to the understanding of the complexity of domestic violence. And we wanted to give the victims a voice and show them that there is a way to a life without violence.
So how do we work? We start by doing a thorough evaluation of the subject. We look at what research is available. What projects are running. Where is the need most urgent and unfulfilled? And we establish an expert group among prominent researchers, leading NGO’s and ministerial officials as well as putting together untraditional partners in our search for new, sustainable and life changing projects. And we speak out. Through conferences, education and the press we try to increase the awareness and understanding of domestic violence.
One of our findings was that money is often used as a means of power and control. If you are financially chained to your partner, this makes leaving him even harder. However, victims of domestic violence have rarely been offered any financial advice. On this basis we established “Advice for Life”.
“Advice for Life” is an independent mentor-based program that offers financial, legal and social counseling to women who have been exposed to physical, psychological and financial violence. We aim to help women regain the power and strength to get back on their feet and ensure their future independence – and a life without violence. The project has been a great success, and we are expanding.
One of the main reasons for the success of the project is the unique setup based on the partnership between the Mary Foundation, Nykredit (a large-scale Danish financial institution), Mother’s Help (an NGO), the national organization for women’s shelters, and private law-firms across the country. Financial mentors and legal advisers are all volunteers. Actually, at the moment we have a long waiting list of financial mentors wanting to be part of the project. The project has created a sense of community because everyone gains from it – whether it unites a company through social responsibility, gives a personal feeling of making a difference or results in a new start in life.
Another one of our projects targets the children. Half the children who arrive at a women’s shelter with their mother – maybe in the middle of the night – arrive with very little. Together with The LEGO Foundation and with inspiration from the Australian Alannah and Madeline Foundation – of which I am the international patron – we decided to address this through a very simple idea; the distribution of “comfort-packs”. A comfort-pack is a cool backpack, that contains basic necessities such as a toothbrush and underwear as well as a teddy bear and story books. The idea was to provide a little bit of comfort in an otherwise desperate situation.
The comfort-pack is a symbolic gesture, it says to the child we see you and we acknowledge your situation. In addition it’s been known to bring out a little smile in a difficult time. A small gift to the mother. It also gives professionals some tools to facilitate the initial conversation about the child’s experiences.
Violence has no nationality, it exists in Australia, in America, in Africa, in Asia and in Europe. However, crossing boarders sometimes makes it complicated to help the victims. In the EU this problem was addressed and met last year, when The European Protection Order and another directive fighting trafficking passed. By passing these directives the EU is sending the same message as we are here today – violence is not acceptable, no matter what country you are from. And we will not accept boarders as a limitation in our fight against it.
It is crucial for the Mary Foundation and for me personally to spend time with the people, we wish to help – no matter where they come from. To be able to sit down face-to-face and talk with a victim of domestic violence helps me to get a deeper understanding of the complexity of their situation. And that is what I did earlier today, when I was given the opportunity to visit a women’s shelter here in Washington.
Every story is unique. And every time I meet one of these courageous women, it reminds me why there are no easy solutions. I get a better understanding of how hard it is to end and break free of a violent relationship. Not least because ending the violent relationship, also means ending the dream of a loving and happy marriage – and breaking up the children’s home.
“Why don’t you leave?” the woman in the poem asked herself. We need to stop asking that question and begin to understand why she is staying. From understanding comes the ability to reach, to touch and to change. And if we help even just one woman to take that courageous first step out of violence, we have achieved a lot.
At this conference we work towards an increased understanding. At all levels. Domestic violence is not just a problem of the individual family or person. It is not just taking place in one particular apartment, or in one city, or in one country. Domestic violence is a global issue.
And this conference sends a message to the world: Everybody has the right to a life without violence. No matter where you come from, who you are or where you are.