A man shouted at me recently. He didn't just shout at me. He shouted at a whole stream of women. We were marching in silence in Claire Moore's 'Dead Women Walking' Murder March to commemorate all the women murdered by men over the past year as part of the 16 Days Of Activism to highlight male violence against women. We wear red capes and Claire reads out the names of the women who have died as she leads us through a City Centre.
The voluble man, who was Christmas shopping in Manchester, amidst festive lights and music and roasting chestnuts, found the sight of a group of women dressed in red, symbolising the blood of our dead sisters, distressing. He glanced at the sign, which said "Dead Women Walking" and shouted out "Well that's not very full of Christmas cheer is it?" and he sounded really annoyed.
He was right. Dead women aren't full of Christmas cheer. They are stuffed full of male violence in this case. So sick of feasting on it that they died.
Katie Locke is one example. She was murdered last Christmas Eve after her first date with Carl Langdell. I'm sure she was hoping for love and a future. Not that he would strangle her and have sex with her corpse. Or Julia Tshabalala murdered by her husband Jan Tshabalala on Christmas Eve 2014 after being beaten for months by him. He was composed enough to arrange a babysitter for their 2 children before killing her.
Christmas is a time that many victims of domestic abusers fear more than normal. This is the time that the male perpetrator will drink more. This is not an excuse for his violence or control. He would be violent and/or controlling anyway. It just makes it more likely, makes him more incendiary and his attacks of greater intensity.
For the abusive men who aren't reliant on physical violence alone, this is a time when opportunities for coercive control present themselves more readily too. A woman is at home more if she works. He will be at home more if he does.
My own abuser ruined every Christmas. I have no memories of a good one and he ruined ones that came after I escaped his abuse too. He tried to ruin last year's. He turned up on Christmas Day and berated me in my own home and in front of my child for allegedly being a terrible mother. The home he is no longer allowed near since he threatened to burn it to the ground. Friends helped to make it fun after he had crawled back off to his lair. It was a day full of laughter. But it had his stain.
Looking back on the Christmases with him the saddest thing was the expectation I had. I had no reason to expect anything good based on experience but I had the same expectations everyone else has. That friends might come round. That the dinner would be fun to eat and cook. That he would become the father he should be and would be involved with his child. Deep inside I knew that there would be no family and friends really. He never let people round to the house. I now know that it is because he couldn't trust himself not to reveal his cruel side. Anyone else would have seen what I tried to hide. One year I insisted on a friend and her family coming and he drank himself into a stupor and lay on the sofa until they left. I was ashamed and I was sad. Christmas was always lonely.
I remember my dread about the 'Lad's Christmas Night Out'. This involved him taking a substantial amount of cocaine and not coming home until 4am at the earliest. If at all. If he did come home there would be damage. Some of it would be the house and some of it would be me, or more usually at the later stages, my possessions. They never hurt their own things these men. He never urinated on anything he owned. My shoes. My bags. My photos. The baby's toys. He never smashed his own laptop. Mine was just to hand.
He would frequently elaborate on his visits to the lap dancing club. He once came home with a "dogging" video and put it on the cabinet next to the television in full view of his child. When challenged the reason was that I was frigid. I am not frigid. I did not want sex with him. He was repulsive to me for bringing home explicit porn. None of us feel sexually attracted to a man who hurts us and humiliates us. Every time a man has sex with us in that circumstance he is raping us and he need not tell himself otherwise.
Towards the end of our marriage I was afraid to fall asleep on the sofa. If I did he would put on hardcore porn and I would wake up to the sounds of a woman being horribly abused on camera. This made me physically sick but he would then suggest we had sex. If I refused then I was frigid. I gritted my teeth. Some women will know - that means only one thing.
There was a time I lay semi-conscious in the street after a Christmas meal with his friends. I lay in the street because he had thrown me there onto my face and I'd banged my head and jarred my neck. A woman called the police.
A couple of nights previously he had visited a prostitute and called me on his phone so that I could listen while he exploited her. As I lay there on the cold tarmac thinking of all this, I hoped I would die. I just went into shock and thought.... "Well. That's it. That's an end to it at least."
But it wasn't. I went to hospital and that was when I got very scared. I was bullied by a male nurse who said I was wasting their time as I was scared to tell them my name. I didn't know what was going to happen to me, my blood pressure was dangerously low and I was very afraid of what he would do to me if the police prosecuted him. Our family unit relied upon him for our existence at that time. My daughter would be homeless. So what did I do? I got up somehow and found my clothes and I went and got him out of the police station. I said the woman had been drunk and I had simply fallen. I begged them to believe my statement not hers. They did. When the police officer brought him out to the car he stared in at me. My abuser who had jumped quickly in the car said "he's just deciding whether you seem stable or he is going to section you." In reality he was just checking to see if I was being abused. I got out of there quick. I wasn't mad. I was just controlled. I believed every word my abuser said.
And on it went.
Now I am free. I fought and I fought and I survived. I write this for all the women who are still fighting and who are not free. Christmas is the very worst of times for abused women. In a hell that we learn to see as normal this is when we really get burned. I hope with all my heart that those women make it to New Year intact. I hope with all my heart that there are more women who manage to find freedom in 2017 than ever have before.
When women march to respect their dead sisters lost to men who ruined not just their Christmas but their lives, don't shout at them. Help them.
To the woman who watched me abused in the street and did something. Thank you. I'm sorry I wasn't strong enough to take your help that time. Women always need women to stand up for them. You didn't waste your time. I just wasn't ready.
When will this government stand up for women and ratify the Istanbul Convention designed to keep them safe? If our government had ratified the treaty immediately in 2011 then more women might be alive to open their presents with their children this year. Why would any UK government not want that?