Farisai Dzemwa was 12 when the grooming started. He was an older male relative who would single her out and make her feel special. Little did she know that this would be the start of an abusive relationship that would force her to leave Zimbabwe, her home country, and plague her for years to come. “He had all these pet names for me, sometimes he’d turn up at school just to surprise me and bring me chocolates” Dzemwa says over the phone from Wolverhampton. “When you’re that age you just think… wow”. It was just before her 16th birthday that things started to get physical. “He’d touch my breasts or slap my bottom, or he’d pretend to kiss me on the cheek and then actually kiss me on the lips.”
One day, he offered to drive her to a family wedding, but stopped the car in the middle of nowhere. “That’s the day he pinned me down in the car and told me I owed him – he said: ‘Why do you think I’ve been doing all these nice things to you?’” He wanted her to become his second wife. When she refused he got aggressive. “I don’t know where I got the strength from, but I managed to push him off me and I just opened the car door and ran.” Finally, she managed to get a lift from a stranger who dropped her back home. “I was really upset,” she says.
When Dzemwa explained to an auntie what had happened, she was immediately told not to tell anyone. “She said: ‘You must have been doing something to lead him on, you can’t talk about this – you don’t want to spoil his name. You’re just a village girl. Think of your mum!’ My auntie also told me that if anybody heard what had happened to me no man would ever want to be near me.” After that, Dzemwa decided never to speak about the incident again.
The consequences of bottling up this trauma meant she was in and out of toxic relationships for most of her adult life. While she recalls that one relationship was “quite good”, and they had a child together, she says she “destroyed it because of the ripple effect of the abuse”. Dzemwa was still in contact with the abusive relative who continued to threaten her. “He acted really nice and friendly towards my family, but whenever I was on my own he would hammer those threats in.” She explains the impact this had on her son: “He was 10 and he was asking me ‘Mum, what is wrong with you? Why are we always moving from one place to another?’”
In 2010 they arrived in the UK to escape the relative’s threats. “I was becoming really depressed and miserable [in Zimbabwe],” she says. But things didn’t improve. In 2017 she crashed her car into a wall because another abusive relationship had taken its toll. It left her with severe injuries and she was unable to walk properly for three years.
However, the accident was also a wake-up call. “I imagined a slideshow of how my life had been, and it became clear that some of the behaviours that I had been exhibiting were due to the initial abuse that I suffered,” she explains. Her boyfriend at the time of the crash was controlling everything, “it was emotional and psychological abuse”, she explains, “and I thought it was love”. She was working 60 hours a week as a mental health nurse; “not for the money, but to give me time away from him.” The controlling behaviour escalated after the crash. “While I was recovering from the accident, my boyfriend turned up and tried to rape me. I rang the police and he had to be physically removed.”
From that moment she decided to do something about it. “I was running away from myself… I could go to America, Australia, wherever, but I’d still be feeling the same way.” She ended the relationship and became passionate about encouraging other survivors to speak out and seek help. She started running craft workshops and therapy sessions through several different organisations and recently created a community integration hub so that local women could come together to “speak about whatever challenges they were facing in a safe environment.” The hub has its own Facebook page with 507 followers, where she promotes community events, shares motivational videos, and gives a platform to women in her community.
It took Dzemwa, now 48, three quarters of her adult life to open up about her abuse – but she doesn’t want others to wait that long. On 31st October, she is running a zoom panel event with an array of survivors from around the world who will share their stories to mark the end of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It comes at a crucial time; with many areas of the UK under Tier 2 or 3 restrictions and the prospect of a second national lockdown looming on the horizon, the impact on domestic abuse victims is acute. During the first seven weeks of lockdown, UK police forces received a call relating to domestic abuse every 30 seconds, according to a Panorama investigation.
Mamoyo Mavis is very concerned about the consequences of a second lockdown. The 53-year-old is a community leader in Northampton and will be speaking on Dzemwa’s panel. “My biggest worry now is for the BAME community and asylum seekers and people who are undocumented,” she says, adding: “If you’ve got no recourse to public funds, then you can’t find any support. [The authorities] only support people who are documented.”
Since 2017, Mavis has been running a social inclusion charity, Power of the Mind Network, which challenges cultural practices that promote discrimination and empowers women to use their voice. “Over the past few months we’ve been doing food parcels, hot meals, going out into the community, seeing people and making sure they’re alright.” It’s through this work that survivors of domestic abuse have been opening up to her about their experiences during lockdown. “We’ve heard about a lot of people being killed in their houses [by their abusers].” She says that the majority of people that she knew who were killed had not told anyone what was happening. “Their families were shocked when they found out”, but by that time it was too late.
JD is another one of the panelists. The 48-year-old was abused by his former girlfriend for most of their three-year relationship. It’s taken him ten years to talk about what happened. “From a man’s point of view, I find it a bit harder to speak about it. I think in the beginning it was the shame more than anything else. For men, there’s a stigma around it that you’re not ‘man enough’ which makes it difficult to open up,” he says. Although it is mainly women who experience domestic abuse, 3.8 percent of men (786,000) experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019, according to ONS data.
“I was mocked and made fun of – and even more so because I’m quite a big guy and I was in the military. So people were like ‘How could someone like you let that happen?’” He says he was brought up to believe that you must never hit a woman, so he only ever defended himself – most of the time he just walked away. “One incident was like out of [the film] Fatal Attraction, she came at me with a knife in the kitchen. I still have a scar from where she cut me on the arm. Then I ran out of the house, and came back the next day.” He adds that “there were many, many times where it got violent and blood’s been drawn – and it’s my blood.” An aggravating factor was usually alcohol, he says. “As soon as she started drinking she was like a different person.”
JD is now happily married and runs a fitness project in London to help people with their physical and mental health. This is the first time he’s publically spoken out about the abuse and wants to encourage more male survivors to talk about their experiences. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it,” he implores.
Dzemwa hopes that this event will give a platform to survivors, like JD, and spark a much-needed dialogue about domestic abuse, which will encourage those currently experiencing it to seek help. “I know the freedom of letting it all out,” she says. However, she also acknowledges just how difficult it is to speak out without the necessary support, which is why community groups such as hers play a vital role.