I facilitate a weekly support group for the women I serve who have experienced intimate partner violence. Often times all I do is pose a question or topic and it takes off from there. I am constantly being surprised and touched by the women in this group and what sticks with me the most is the power in their storytelling. First of all it allows each woman to see and hear the similarities in each others stories. They know and connect with other women who have been in violent, unhealthy, and abusive relationships. An abusive person often keeps his or her partner isolated from their friends and family. Sharing what they went through helps to break this isolation. They learn that the relationship they were in was not normal or healthy. They hear their experiences being spoken in another woman’s voice and they feel connected to something bigger than themselves. Through sharing they help to break the silence surrounding intimate partner violence.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM) and this week is the Week Without Violence at my work. For this we decided to participate in something called The Clothesline Project. This is a project that was started in Massachusetts in 1990 to address violence against women. It is a way for *women who have been or know someone who has been affected by violence to share their stories by decorating a t-shirt. After the t-shirts are finished they are hung up on display as a testimony to these women and their stories. Originally different colored t-shirts meant different things. For example, a white t-shirt symbolized a woman killed by an intimate partner, blue for sexual abuse and incest, purple for women who were attacked based on their sexual orientation, etc. But it has grown from there mostly based on availability and economics (white shirts come in larger packs…). The project has also grown to a world-wide one.
Last week during support group I explained this project and we painted t-shirts. The experience was an incredibly moving one. Mostly we painted in silence; each woman lost in her own memory. But as they began to finish they began to share about their t-shirts. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and nods of understanding. This project served to connect this group of women in such a powerful way, more so than the rest of the groups we had done in the weeks prior.
One woman had painted a scene with flowers under a sky that was half sun and half clouds. She explained that the flowers were for her and each of her children, and that they were growing through what they had gone through. The smaller flowers were for the children because they were still growing and had so much potential still. There were both clouds and the sun because tomorrow is always another day. They had the chance to run and start over, and they took it. Another woman put what she called her “freedom date” on the shirt; the date she left. Another women wrote, “I have rights.” And still another wrote that “love shouldn’t hurt” surrounded by the initials of women she knew who had survived. Another woman painted a heart with wings in a cage. On the back was the same picture but with the cage door open. Still others wrote things like, “Stop the Silence,” “Never Again,” and simply “I survived.” Others painted a purple ribbon with the names of those they knew who had been killed.
As they explained and held up the t-shirts they shared their experiences. They named their abusers. It was powerful for everyone involved. This week the t-shirts will be put on display with others. I am excited to share these t-shirts and vicariously be a voice for the women I work with. For me DVAM is about more than making those in the community aware about domestic violence, it’s about sharing stories and breaking the silence for those who may be in abusive relationships themselves. It is about connecting survivors with other survivors and letting them know they are not alone.
If you ever get the chance to view a Clothesline Project in your community I would highly suggest that you do it.
*Please note that the language I am using is reflected by the project itself. Domestic violence can affect anyone and does not discriminate based on gender, sex, religion, economic status, or education level.