Nearly One-Third: It's Time to Listen
Nearly one-third of women across the world between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence from their partner during a relationship. People often perceive violence against women, especially sexual, as occurring in the dark of the night when a random man attacks an unsuspecting woman as she walks home. Often, this is not reality. While these rare occurrences do surface every once in a while, the staggering majority of violence takes place within romantic relationships. So why aren’t we talking about abusive relationships like we talk about these unexpected instances of violence?
As a young woman nearing my first year of college, this issue is something I wish was brought to light more frequently. It is frightening to learn that most sexual and physical abuse can come from someone that is supposed to be a reliable, loving figure. It is time to address this issue instead of sweeping it under the rug.
The poet Warsan Shire does exactly that in her pieces "The House” and "Backwards." Safia Elhillo, another poet, takes an empowering approach in her poem called "From ‘The Girls that Never Die’" which complements the root of the issue discussed in Shire’s poems. Shire’s poems explain the heartbreaking nature and effects of abusive relationships while Elhillo’s poem provides a response which invites women to take a stand in the face of these restrictions.
Both “Backwards” and “The House” tackle abusive relationships, but each poem speaks to a different situation of abuse. Shire’s poem “Backwards” focuses on an abusive stepfather and the effects he has on the speaker, who is a child, and the rest of her family. The first line of Shire’s “Backwards” reads, “The poem can start with him walking backwards into a room.” This refers to the speaker’s father, not her stepfather. The whole poem unravels from there, mentioning all of what could have been avoided if her father were still present. The speaker talks about various events: her stepfather shoving her pregnant mother down the stairs, the speaker enduring physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather, and her stepfather constantly drinking. All of this is framed as a what-if situation. The speaker imagines what would have happened if she could prevent how their lives unfolded. It becomes clear that the speaker will have wounds for the remainder of her life when she states, “I’ll rewrite this whole life and this time there’ll be so much love /… I can make us loved, just say the word.” Shire displays how the influence of an abusive childhood can last a lifetime.
Shire’s poem “The House” dives into abusive partners within romantic relationships. Shire breaks this poem into ten sections that each address a different topic relating to the speaker’s experiences with manipulative partners. Shire’s “The House” begins with the speaker’s mother warning her about men that “come with keys” and “hammers” to unlock or break into the “locked rooms inside all women.” It then abruptly shifts to a moment revealing the speaker has been sexually abused: “I said Stop, I said No and he did not listen.” From there, the speaker chronicles a history of her romantic partners and the scars they’ve left behind. And the last few lines of the poem show just how damaged the speaker has become: “At parties I point to my body and say This is where love comes to die. Welcome, come in, make yourself /at home. Everyone laughs, they think I’m joking.” Through this poem, Shire expresses the danger of abusive romantic relationships and the attachment that can arise from these situations.
Although Elhillo’s poem “From ‘Girls That Never Die’” is not specifically about physical or sexual violence, it provides a perspective of empowerment, encouraging women to break free from any shackles that men have placed around them. The poem describes a girl who is buried and bound by natural elements. She appears to have passed away. A crowd gathers to watch her. However, towards the end of the poem, the perspective shifts from third person to the girl’s point of view. She exclaims: “[What if I will not die]/[what will govern me then] … [what stone what rope what man/will be my officer.]” Elhillo ends the poem with the girl taking control of herself and breaking free from her restraints. “From ‘Girls That Never Die’” highlights the importance of hope and that even the grimmest situations can turn out better than expected.
Shire’s work is raw and gut-wrenching. It clearly illuminates the issue of domestic abuse. While Elhillo’s poem is not directly related, it provides a beacon of hope in response to the heartbreaking situations that Shire details in her poems. Shire’s poems address an issue that many women face, and they emphasize something many people fail to recognize. They also show women who have dealt with this abuse that they are not alone. Elhillo’s poem reminds women to remain hopeful. Its inspirational nature communicates that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Together, these three poems raise awareness for an issue that many women across the planet have experienced. The poems are a reminder that women should not be silenced. Their cries for help should not be disregarded. It is time to stop ignoring the almost one-third of women who have spoken out regarding the physical and sexual abuse they have endured.