Op-ed: The roles I've played brought home to me the scourge of violence against womenBy Nicole Kidman, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and award-winning actor
We have been through the unimaginable this year. Separated from family and people we love, our dreams put on pause, while fearing for our health and our very lives.
In addition to Covid-19, a shadow pandemic has been unfolding: violence against women. Calls to helplines increased up to fivefold in the first few weeks of the pandemic. And an issue that was already pervasive before Covid-19 hit – evident on the streets, in the tube or a hotel room, on the news, in a conversation with a friend, in the scripts I read and the roles I played – became even more pressing.
Imagine what life is like for the women and girls who, like all of us, have to shelter at home to stay safe from Covid-19, when home itself is not a safe place. Where you are being assaulted, abused, manipulated, or constantly guarded by partners or family members. For every three months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million women around the world are expected to be affected by violence, while support services, counselling, shelters for survivors will be severely strained.
Along with domestic abuse, there has been an upsurge in all types of violence against women and girls. From harassment on the almost empty streets, to cyberbullying, to the young girls whose families’ increased financial burdens lead to them being removed from school and forced into marriage.
As UN Women’s goodwill ambassador since 2006, I have learned much about the horrific scope of violence against women around the world and seen its devastating impact.
When I first heard that one in three women and girls experience violence in their lifetime, I was utterly shocked. I visited Kosovo that year and heard the stories of women who had been victims of sexual violence, war widows, and women who were still searching for missing family. I listened. I listened to how violence had fragmented their lives and the lives of their children, about lives lost and dreams shattered and their struggles and victories in overcoming great adversities. I witnessed their strength and resilience to rebuild.
Playing the role of Celeste, a lawyer and survivor of domestic abuse in Big Little Lies, strengthened my stance on this issue. I felt very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated as I told her story – even though playing that character is nothing compared to what women in abusive relationships actually face every single day. I would keep on my brave face during shooting, only to go home and realise how much it had affected me.
But then I would recall the stories of strength and resilience of the survivors and activists I had met, and that pushed me to lend my voice to those who do not have a platform to share their own.
Everyone has a role to play and power to contribute to ending violence against women and girls, even during this pandemic. It starts by listening, believing survivors. When someone says she has been attacked, her sobriety, clothes and sexuality are irrelevant. Even small actions like calling out toxic behaviours in a friend or sharing relevant information in a group chat, for instance, can go a long way.
Growing up with a feminist mother, it never occurred to me that I could be at a disadvantage because I was born a girl. As a mother myself today, I know how important it is to nurture self-esteem, challenge stereotypes and discrimination, and to set an example for the younger generation. We need to start having conversations at home about gender roles early on, and talk with our boys and girls about consent, bodily autonomy and accountability.
Your voice counts. Learn about abuse and the ways you can help through the services and resources available. Reach out if you are concerned about a friend who may be experiencing violence or feels unsafe. Use your social media channels or community spaces to raise awareness. If the means allow, make a donation to organisations around the world who are providing survivors essential services, such as shelter, healthcare and access to justice, in the face of severe funding cuts.
Violence against women and girls was already widespread before the pandemic. Whether it will outlive it, or not, it’s on us all.