The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that 1 in every 3 women have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime. Violence against women denies their fundamental human rights, undermines their freedoms and directly impacts upon their equality of opportunity. This is in addition to the extensive physical, emotional and sexual harm, including impairment and sometimes death. Despite the issue being a cornerstone of the Beijing Platform (1995), it has really been in more recent years that violence against women has been recognized as a major public health concern, demanding government attention and intervention. The lack of effective government responses alongside the elimination and prevention of violence on women was a key area of discussion at the recent 60th Commission on the Status of Women. I have chosen to focus on a moment in each person’s life, the moment when silent tears fall.
I have chosen to focus on a moment in each person’s life, the moment when silent tears fall.
Pressure from local women’s groups have been pivotal in driving government policy change, particularly in relation to developing effective judicial responses to both victims and perpetrators, large scale policy interventions and localized program responses. Despite these efforts, as women’s groups have documented, many of the responses are too often out of reach for the women who need these programs most. Violence against women with disability rarely receives government targeted action, media coverage or broader recognition within the broader women’s movement. The absence of disability from global discussions on violence against women, either as an outcome of violence or as a highly susceptible group to gendered violence, has been the impetus for exhibition Silent Tears at the United Nations 60th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
In this second stage report, Karen Soldatic met up with Belinda Mason, the lead protagonist of the exhibition, to speak about the impetus for this global exhibition. In Belinda’s narrative, we also incorporate a number of short video clips of the women participants who speaking about their experiences. They discuss their own silent tears during and after their experiences of violence and most significantly, their struggle for survival. These women all self-identify as having a disability and this includes acquiring their disability as an outcome of the lived experience of violence.
Belinda: “Silent tears fall at the moment when we feel the most alone and the most lost, it is also a turning point, to look for hope and strength. The intent of Silent Tears is to create hope, unity and strength for all women who have been subjected to violence. The power of this exhibition lies in the hands of those who participate in it, women with disabilities who have been subjected to violence and women who have acquired disability caused by violence.
The complexities of the issues surrounding women with disability and violence cannot be resolved until the reasons surrounding the violence are heard, and this can only be told by those who experience it. The participants have the opportunity to reveal the long-term impact, and circumstances of the violence, and how this has affected their lives.
They represent a range of experiences and cultures providing an important and respectful narrative and validation of their experience, while also reaching out to other survivors and the wider community. The exhibition provides a focal point for discussion, education and awareness raising – providing the impetus for social change.
With the amount of violence in our media, on television, in movies and computer games and not to forget social media, it is easy to become desensitised to the images and visual stories that are flashed in front of us. The images of violence from distant lands can be viewed consumed and forgotten within the space of a Snapchat. When viewing Silent Tears, as an artist it was important to me that you did not feel this way when you left the exhibition. These women are not from distance lands, they are women who live amongst us all, often in silence. In viewing Silent Tears, and listening and reading the stories of the participants, you are witnessing the extent of violence perpetrated against women in Australia. The participants of the exhibition challenge what defines disability, gender and violence. The exposure to violence can normalise the situation for both the perpetrator and the victim. This normalisation also impacts on the advocates and support workers, it can render them traumatised or desensitised to the violence. Collaboration between those who offer support services and those who require support services is key in creating viable solutions.
Being able to identify and acknowledge the complexity of these issues is the first step towards breaking the silence. The viewer first sees Denise Beckwith’s and Margherita Coppolino’s documentary and black and white photographs illustrating the everyday lives of the women. They are portrayed at home, with family or friends, in scenes that are familiar to us all. Beside each image, each individual story can be read, and as you do so, you can hear the eerie sound of water and chimes. Theirs are powerful and compelling stories of psychological, physical, emotional, economic, or cultural violence. The power of this exhibition lies in the hands of those who participate in it, as they share stories of domestic violence, forced sterilisation, psychological trauma, female genital mutilation, neglect or sexual abuse within institutions or by family members. I have chosen to focus on a moment in each person’s life, the moment when silent tears fall. It is an internal portrait rather than an external one.
The photographs are produced as large suspended images, which freeze the moment capturing the viewer within it. The transparent materials, which were used to print the images on, reflect the invisible yet visible nature of violence against women. Silent Tears fall at the moment when we feel the most vulnerable, lost and alone. When the tears stop falling, there is nothing left but numbness, marking a turning point to either reach out to someone in order break the silence, or turn back and be swallowed by the silence. But if they stay silent, they remain voiceless. Without those stories heard, they remain invisible. For those who listen, it is also hard, especially when the stories are difficult to hear and often impossible to imagine.
The video installation accompanying the photographs is made by Dieter Knierim and includes a narrative from each woman that gives an intimate glimpse of their experience. Film and photography have a well-regarded role for bringing the plight of silent victims into focus, providing a powerful opportunity for understanding and action. Bearing witness to the realities of these twenty women’s lives should be uncomfortable and challenging for audiences. When women with disability find the courage to speak about the violence that they have experienced, they often find themselves forgotten or simply left out of the conversation.
Silent Tears gives them the opportunity to tell you exactly how they feel. Silent Tears has touched many raw nerves, and support has been made available for participants, viewers and the artists. The images that we have created, are shown in the community where the participants live, shining a torch into the dark corners that many would prefer no light to be shed. The images do not portray violence, but they don’t need to, instead they captivate you with a familiar intimacy before revealing a hidden truth. Without stories, there is silence. Without stories told, we are voiceless. Without our stories heard, we are invisible. It is even harder, when the stories are hard to hear and impossible to imagine. We cannot argue when someone says, “I feel”, – it is not our right. It is part of our own journey to learn empathy rather than compassion. Our own reaction exposes us to ourselves, and our ability to listen when someone lays their naked soul in our path.