Content warning: This story contains mention and description of sexual violence and abuse
Guiscela Perez Arellano moved to Canada, having fallen in love with a man she met in Mexico. Three years into their relationship, he stumbled into their house, his breath reeking of alcohol as he tried to force Arellano to have sex with him. When she denied, he grabbed her neck and said, “I’m the man, you will do what I say, when I say so.”
She slept in her car that night but eventually returned home. Arellano was in this relationship for five years before it ended.
Nov. 25 to Dec. 10 marks the 30th anniversary of the Global 16 Days Campaign to end gender-based violence. Beginning with International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and ending with International Human Rights Day, the 16 days are organized around engagement and awareness, with a focus on femicide.
One in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence. Most violence against women is perpetuated by current or former partners.
“There were red flags I never saw,” Arellano said. “And I think it’s hard for family members and friends to tell you about the red flags because you’re so in love and so blind. So, even if someone points them out, you think they’re the bad guys, trying to separate you from the love of your life.”
There were things he did before that night, Arellano said. He was often too aggressive; she would have bruises on her arm from him grabbing her. But, it was the comments that he made that she still thinks about.
“Any time I wanted to discuss anything, he said I was crazy, emotional, hysterical,” she said.
Arellano wanted to buy a yoga studio but her partner told her she could never do it and she believed him. “You start believing what they tell you,” Arellano said.
Gender-based violence, at its core, is about power and control, said Bear Atwood, vice president of the National Organization for Women. With domestic violence specifically, “intimate relationships are the place where there’s the most access for a person to exercise power and control,” she said.
The Violence Against Women Act alone—in its funding of sexual assault and domsetic violence programs and the provisons that strengthen it—are tools in fighting against gender-based violence.
“We need to work to eliminate gender-based violence, that is working to empower women and people of color,” Atwood said. “Gender-based violence is the worst in communities of color and has gotten much worse during the pandemic.”
For years, Arellano blamed herself because she believed she allowed her partner to have full control over her. She said she knows now it is not her fault, but it took time to seek help.
When she first started speaking out and telling her story in Mexico, she was told to stop and that she was making herself a victim. However, that never stopped her from being vocal.
“If one person hears my story and knows they are not alone, that’s already a gain for me,” Arellano said. “Nobody should live through this.”
Laura Palumbo, the communications director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said the roots of domestic violence go back to having power and control over a partner. In society, there has been this overarching message that, in a relationship, men are the ones who are in control and over women, she said.
Palumbo has been involved with the campaign for more than 10 years, but has recently noticed its growing traction through the rise of social media.
“Sexual assault and domestic violence are issues that have a lot of silence and stigma surrounding them,” Palumbo said. “So, for there to be a really visible presence of activism, it can really be empowering.”
From what Palumbo has seen, there is a broad and global participation in the campaign that is creating awareness and helping to provide an understanding of gender-based violence.
“But, we can see efforts in individual countries have really helped to change the conditions in those countries,” Palumbo said.
While the scope of the issue is better understood now and there has been a lot of progress, Palumbo said, but keeping that trajectory is what we need to understand what contributes to gender-based violence and is essential to eliminating it.
“What contributes to that high rate is a lack of economic freedom and resources for women and girls, a lack of education and health and medical care,” she said. “And, when it comes to dealing with the global pandemic of gender-based violence, the types of interventions that will make it so women and girls are safer, are the types of interventions that will allow our communities to thrive.”
Atwood said the elimination of gender-based violence can’t be predicted. “The problem is the people who perpetrate it,” she said. “We have such a disdain for women and women’s power in our world, that it’s really hard to overcome that power and control that perpetuates gender-based violence.”
Palumbo knows ending gender-based violence is a long, difficult path. “The existence of the campaign is keeping that hope alive, that we can get there, but at the very least, that we can’t settle,” she said.
Arellano’s piece of advice is to take back the power.
“Take the power from them, the negative from their words and own it,” Arellano said. “Crazy for me now means I’m doing things differently. I took the power and negativity out of his words.”
For students experiencing gender-based violence, visit the Title IX Office.
Resources for anyone experiencing gender-based violence: