Sunthari Subramaniam wants to share her story openly. Unlike most victims of domestic violence, Sunthari allows her photos to be used, and she does not want to hide behind a pseudonym.
She is a survivor. During her 20-year marriage, she was constantly pummelled, berated, stalked, threatened and beaten down, but Sunthari somehow managed to find her way out of the abusive relationship.
She wants other victims of abuse to know their situation is not hopeless, and they too could emerge stronger and live on their own terms.
“I am not just a survivor; I’m a warrior. I am thriving now and I want to share my story with other victims. It doesn’t matter if they are ready to take the next step or not … leaving could take years. But I want women to know that they are strong, that the abuse isn’t their fault and that anything is possible,” says the 45-year-old mother of two.
It is voices of survivors like Sunthari that the United Nations’ (UN) 16 Days Of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign aims to honour and amplify.
The theme for this year’s campaign, “Orange The World: #HearMeToo”, is a call for society to listen and believe survivors and stop silencing victims.
It is also a time to “galvanise action to end violence against women and girls around the world”, said UN Women in a statement about this year’s campaign.
The 16 Days of Activism is an annual campaign from Nov 25 (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) till Human Rights Day on Dec 10.
A new UN study has found that the “most dangerous place” for women around the world is at home.
More than half (58%) of the 87,000 recorded female murder victims last year were killed by their partners or family members, according to the study, which was released by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women last Sunday.
The UNDOC called for measures to reduce violence against women, including instituting early intervention programmes for domestic violence, educating men and encouraging criminal justice reform.
“The #HearMeToo campaign is about representation. Survivors have a right to speak for themselves and to be represented in efforts to end violence against women. When survivors speak up, we must listen, amplify their voices and let their perspectives shape and inform our solutions.
“From a public policy perspective, survivors have first-hand experience of navigating the justice system. They know what works and what doesn’t. By listening to survivors, we would learn the gaps in public policies and their enforcement, which then enables us to create effective, survivor-centred policies,” says Women’s Aid Organisation’s advocacy and communications officer Tan Heang-Lee.
The first time Sunthari’s husband hit her was just a week after their wedding.
“We were in our marital home for the first time. He came at me with a kitchen knife. He held it against my throat and then he pushed me down. I tried to run upstairs but he dragged me down the stairs. Every time I tried to fight, he’d push me down and hit me again and again.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I was in pain, afraid and confused. I was crushed … this was the man I was suppose to share my life with. Why was he hitting me?
“After some time, I got tired of fighting and just stayed on the ground. He left me there with my bruised and bloodied face,” she recounts.
He returned later, remorseful. He cried, begged forgiveness and promised to be better.
“I asked him why he’d hit me but he just cried and asked me to give him another chance. I was in love and isn’t that what you do when you love someone? So I gave him another chance and another and another,” she recounts.
Domestic abuse, explains Tan, often happens in cycles: the abuser threatens violence, abuses the partner, apologises and promises to change before repeating the cycle again.
For Sunthari, the cycles were sometimes months apart. During “honeymoon phases” in between attacks, her abusive husband was charming and attentive. But she never knew what would bring on the next attack.
It wasn’t just physical violence – he also prohibited her from working or socialising.
He abused her emotionally by constantly putting her down. He told her she wasn’t a good wife and mother, that she wasn’t pretty and was useless.
This went on for 20 years.
“I know many will wonder why I didn’t leave or get help. But I did. I cried for help but help never came. I made so many police reports but instead of getting help, the male police officers told me to go home and try to make my husband happy. They even joked about it among themselves, commenting that my husband must not have ‘gotten enough’. I was humiliated. And once again, I was told that it was my fault. I never went back to the police,” she shared.
Worried that her attacker would harm her children if she did leave, Sunthari stayed.
Although speaking about her experience brings up horrific memories, Sunthari is determined to keep at it because she knows all too well how a little support can go a long way.
The first person to stand up for her was the principal at her daughter’s kindergarten who offered Sunthari a job as a teacher’s aide. Sunthari’s ex-husband made a scene but the principal stood up to him.
“He let me work but the violence continued. But I didn’t care. This was the first step on my long road to freedom,” she shares.
Emboldened, Sunthari enrolled for a Diploma in Early Childhood Education course at Universiti Malaya.
“I lied to him that the school sent me for the course and because he didn’t want to be embarrassed by the principal again, he didn’t stop me,” she said.
With her diploma, Sunthari got a teaching job at an international school. After a while, she applied to do her Bachelor’s degree.
“By now, I could predict his cycles. When he was in his charming phase, I broached the subject and got him to agree. I finished my degree at Universiti Tun Abdul Razak and graduated with first class honours.
“Of course, he took credit for that but I didn’t care. I had bigger plans. I was going to save myself and my children. I was getting back my confidence. I wasn’t as stupid as he claimed, after all,” she says.
It was at university that Sunthari saw a Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) poster on domestic violence.
“My eyes fixed on the phrase “cycle of violence” because it described my situation! If those words were on a poster, that would mean I wasn’t the only one going through this,” she says.
Sunthari called WAO and a social worker convinced her to make another police report.
“The first thing the social worker told me was that it wasn’t my fault. That changed everything. She then said she’d accompany me to make a report.
“At the station, we spoke to a female police sergeant who picked up the phone and called my husband and warned him against hitting me again.”
This was another watershed moment for Sunthari.
“Seeing so many strong women standing up against a monster gave me strength. It took me 10 years to execute my plan but I was almost there,” recalls Sunthari.
It was her 17-year-old daughter Habiraamie who gave her the final push to leave.
“She called me one day while I was at work and told me she’d left home because her father was walking around the house with a sledgehammer. She gave me an ultimatum: choose her or choose him. I was stunned.
“All this while I thought I was staying in the marriage to save my children but my daughter made me see that saving them didn’t mean staying … it meant getting them out.
“My daughter was remarkable. She assured me that we didn’t need him and that if we could live with him, we could surely live without him. That was all I needed,” says Sunthari.
Although they continued to live in the same house until the divorce was finalised, the dynamics of their relationship had shifted – there was still the threats and name-calling, but he never hit her again. Instead, he made himself out to be the victim.
“I didn’t care what he called me. I gave him the house and my jewellery and everything. All I wanted was my children. That was how I got my divorce,” she says.
A happy beginning
It has been five years since her divorce and Sunthari and her children are “stronger together”.
“People use the term ‘broken family’ but that’s a term I do not believe in.
“We are a strong unit now. We would have been broken had we stayed,” shares Sunthari, who has since become a crisis support officer and victim advocate with WAO.
Habiraamie is now 24 and a psychology graduate, and her son, Theeban, is in university. Both are supportive of their mother’s decision to share her story.
“No man should ever treat a woman they way he did. I was not directly (abused) as my mother was but the experience has shaped me to be fearless.
“It has also taught me to be resilient and independent. I will never show my vulnerability because that is what abusive men will feed on. It has also taught me to be aware of the masks that people sometimes wear. And what gives me strength is my mother,” says Habiraamie.
And though Sunthari was initially worried that her son may have been influenced by the abuse he witnessed – he was hostile and distant as a young boy – Theeban too has become an advocate for gender equality among his peers.
“Up to 70% of women in some countries face physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.
“Up to 6,000 child marriages have been recorded in Malaysia in the last five years and these numbers are rising and yet, people are remaining silent. I don’t want these numbers to rise anymore.
“And like my mother, I want to be a voice that can reduce the number of people suffering.
“I want to be a person that people look up to with respect, a person who can make positive change and bring a smile to people. And, I’m proud to say that I am a gentleman because of my mother,” says Theeban.