Talking about domestic abuse still is taboo even though it’s a common occurrence in our country. According to the Philippine Commission on Women, 14.4 percent of women experiencing physical violence and 37 percent say they left their spouses due to violence. While we’re in a time wherein more women across the world are encouraged to speak out, Filipino-Chinese marriages show a dark side that not many of us know about.
Author Coylee Gamboa recently launched Broken Mirror, which sheds light on women in Fil-Chi marriages whose silence amid abuse is viewed as a virtue of self-sacrifice to her husband. The book tells the story of Aurora Teo Mei Ling (not her real name) and how she got out of her abusive marriage. “She wrote it as a way to release all the pain she experienced. When I heard her story for the first time, it was so painful to listen to,” Coylee says. “She’s currently healing but she was actually lost at that stage and I said, ‘You can’t go through this alone.’ I had to stand with her in solidarity.”
We sat down with Coylee to talk about the book’s premise and how women can escape abusive unions.
How was the writing process like for you two?
We met regularly, as often as we could. [We had] about 15 interviews in the process [wherein] she told her story. The story did not grow as if she was dictating something, it went by accretion. You know how nails grow slowly? That’s how it happened.
Is Aurora’s experience a common occurrence in Chinese marriages?
The silence, yes. The abuse, we can only guess because there’s no statistics [and no one’s speaking out.] They’re very quiet about what’s private to them.
Is male dominance common in Chinese culture?
I’m not Chinese and I didn’t grow up in that marriage. On an outsiders point of view, yes, it would appear that Chinese men have dominant roles in the marriage and the wives have very little say. But then there are also exceptional Chinese women who are strong and have an equal role in their marriage. So it’s hard to generalize about Chinese marriages.
Was there ever a point in the writing process that one or both of you wanted to back out?
No, but it was very painful at one part because I interviewed her the day after she had tried to kill herself. Her pain was very evident and it was hard for me to hear it. Transcribing it was very painful because you can hear the pain in her voice.
What pushed her to end her marriage with abusive husband?
Her marriage hasn’t ended, but she’s separated from her husband. [She left because] he brutalized her and she had enough. She wanted freedom to find love and so she doesn’t have to live her life the way it has been all throughout. She cannot go through life thinking that this is all there is to life and that she’ll never experience what it feels like to be loved. That’s why she is asking for freedom from her husband.
Since you mentioned that she’s not legally separated from him yet, do you think that passing the pending divorce bill would’ve helped her?
[The divorce bill] can only come in handy if she intends to marry again. As far as I know, she doesn’t intend on re-marrying. [But they’ll continue with the annulment] once the children are of age.
Do you think that policies to protect women who are in abusive marriages are lacking?
I think that abuse in marriage—or any kind of abuse, whether it’s child or sexual, all of these hide in darkness. When nobody speaks out about it, it goes on. In Aurora’s case, she found her voice and she’s speaking out about it [because] it can’t go on. And by her very act, she’s also encouraging women to speak out. She’s given them a voice that this is what happens in certain marriages.
Do you also think that Broken Mirror can educate those who are often skeptical of those who speak out about abuse?
It’s a true-to-life account and it gives bold facts about being abused. People who go through abuse may feel shame about experiencing it because they don’t want to come out and say exactly what happened. There are also those who claim they were abused but don’t give details about it. So they have to find somebody who will believe them. In Aurora’s case, she found me and I believe her.
How do you feel about women who are being deprived of their human rights?
As a woman, I would like to stand in solidarity with them and give them a voice so that they can find the courage to stand up to their oppressors. Also speak out and find relief in their situation. That’s what I would like to do with them.
How can parents educate their children on speaking about abuse?
I think they can tell their children that they can speak up. Tell them that they have the right to speak up and to be heard. Also, listen to their children. Believe them when they say that there’s something wrong [so it doesn’t happen again in the future.]
Do you think that abused women and children should have additional support from the government or organizations?
I work sometimes with the Hospicio de San Jose, I’ve written three books for them. They take care of abused and trafficked women and children. So I’m quite aware that this problem is more widespread than we like to think about and there are not enough organizations who help women in this predicament. All of this is partly because of poverty—we don’t have the resources to do that. So we need a bigger pie for the country, we need prosperity.