“... I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive, I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise...”
I love these particular lyrics from the song ‘Fly’, by Nicki Minaj, featuring Rihanna. The pink haired pop star may not be to everyone’s taste, but these lyrics speak to me of a woman claiming her own power.
For the last 2 weeks, I’ve been reminiscing about my time as a public prosecutor and looking forward to the opportunities to make a change as a violence against women activist in Nigeria. As a lawyer and as a writer, I’m always thinking about the importance of words. Their meaning, how I use them to convey what I mean. In the context of the law, a word that I have been using a lot recently is ‘victim’. As you all know by now, I’m a sucker for a definition, so I looked it up. The one I found, that properly expresses what I mean when I use the word is: “a person harmed, injured or killed as a result of a crime, accident or other event or action”. In that sense, it’s not wrong to call someone who has experienced violence against women a victim. However, I’d like to explore two consequences of using the word and why I prefer the word ‘survivor’.
The first thing I’d like to say is that using the term ‘victim’ even when the person is no longer experiencing the violence keeps them in a place of powerlessness. It doesn’t reflect the fact that they may no longer be in the abusive situation. For the woman who has either left the relationship or the perpetrator has been held to account through the courts, to continue to use that word keeps her stuck in a place that doesn’t reflect her anymore. I understand that other people may take the view that although the violence may have ceased, the harm or injury done, is ongoing and therefore ‘victim’ is the correct term. To my mind, ‘survivor’ is a much more accurate description of where that woman is now and allows her to begin the journey back to her best self.
The second point that I would like to make, flows on from the one above. Whatever terminology is used, it’s still about someone else making the decisions. Someone else is labelling you. As a prosecutor and even as an activist, no matter how sensitive I think I am being, when I choose to use the word ‘survivor’ instead of ‘victim’, I am doing the labelling. I am making the decision about how best to describe you. For a victim of violence, one of the most corrosive consequences is when the perpetrator takes away your choices and labels you. When you are kept away from friends or family and constantly called abusive and derogatory names, it makes the job of destroying your self esteem and self confidence much easier. The most respectful thing for us to do as people who work with those who have experienced violence is to ask how they would prefer to be addressed. It may require us to change our way of thinking or even learn a different language, but in the end, if we are serious about being respectful, then it’s something we will have to do.
‘Survivor’ means “a person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died”. In the UK, 2 women a week are killed by their current or ex partners; In Colombia, one woman is reportedly killed by her current or former partner every 6 days; According to the World Health Organisation, 40-70% of female murder victims in Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, were killed by their partners. Given these statistics, it’s clear that women experiencing violence should take the perpetrator very seriously, when he threatens to kill them. They also demonstrate why I prefer the term ‘survivor’.
In this work that we do as lawyers, activists, policy makers, advocates, it’s important to remember that we get to work with women who are on a journey. It is not our journey and we don’t get to take over. It’s about affording people respect and dignity, whilst they make their life choices.|
I’ll end, the same way I started, with lyrics from Nicki Minaj, because I think she says it best:
“Everybody wanna try to box me in, suffocating everytime it locks me in...I am not a girl who can be defined...I came to win, to fight, to conquer, to thrive, I came to win, to survive, to prosper, to rise...”
Born2bebeautiful is taking a 2 week break and will be back on the 3 January 2013. Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday season.
 Women’s Aid website
 United Nations website
 United Nations website
 Nicki Minaj ft Rihanna-Fly