Maureen Ernest is a medical doctor, an activist, and a writer. In this interview with Women Talk, Maureen talks about how her own past and personal story drove her to become an activist fighting against and creating awareness on domestic violence, how she discovered herself through writing, and why she is on a quest as a healed healer, sharing her story to inspire other women who have undergone violence.
You are a medical doctor. How did you get interested in the medical field?
Thirteen of my cousins are doctors. It is a tradition in my family to become a doctor. I really wanted to become a teacher, as a child that was my dream. When I was twenty, I went to England to study business administration. But that did not work out well because that was the first time I left the country and my family. I had never been on my own. It was really hard for me to make decisions and choices on my own because always my father had made the decisions for me. I always had that feeling that I never really need to make a choice in my life. Because, always, my father made the choices and then my husband made the choices, and perhaps in future my son will make the choice. And I will just be.
Even while studying business administration, I wanted to go into nursing because I was inspired by Mother Theresa and Florence Nightingale. I was passionate about taking care of others. But my family insisted that it was better to be a doctor than a nurse. They did not see a value of me becoming a nurse. So, my father sent me to Russia to do medicine. I did not have a choice to choose what I really wanted to do. I also did not know that I had my own choice of doing what I wanted. So, I followed. I finished my degree and came back. I worked here as a doctor.
You are now an activist fighting against domestic violence. What drove you towards becoming this activist from being a medical doctor?
It is my personal story. I got married and went to Canada, I did not know that my ex-husband was abusive. Even when I was in an abusive situation, I did not know that it was wrong. I thought, as a woman, I should tolerate everything. I did not see it as something wrong. I felt like it is a normal thing because my father was also verbally and emotionally abusive. I grew up in an abusive home. I could not see anything different in my marriage. I accepted it. At one point, I realized that I have married my father. That feeling really shocked me because some of the words my father used to say my ex-husband also used.
Once, I was beaten by my ex-husband and I had a stomach pain for three days. That was the wakeup call, for me. Even though I was a doctor, I did not know the meaning of abuse and that it is something wrong. I first did a Google search to find what is wrong or what has happened. At that moment, I didn’t see that he has hurt me. I felt that I was thinking about others but I had not given any priority for myself. That was the first time that I realised that there was something wrong. I decided what I wanted do about it.
I decided to get support. All I wanted was to get somebody to tell him not to beat your wife. But because it was Canada I reached out to the Catholic Family Services to get help, who called the police and instantly they took care of the situation, which I did not expect at all. I did not see it at all as a serious problem. But they saw it as a life-threatening situation.
Did you get any support from your family back in Sri Lanka?
When I told my family that I was in need of support my father said that he did not have a daughter anymore, after hearing that I wanted to leave my husband. That was the time I realized that I wanted to live. The falling in love with life happened when my dad rejected me.
The Canadian government supported me a lot. I was so shy to say I was divorced back then. I felt that people would not accept me and everybody was going to reject me. But it was not a big deal there [in Canada]. Everybody was happy that I was able to come out of that abusive situation. In Canada, the way it was seen was so different than back home here.
I got to know how divorce is seen in Sri Lanka. If I was in Sri Lanka, I don’t know if I would have been able to divorce my ex-husband. Even if I could have divorced him, I don’t know whether I would have been able to come out like this, and become who I am today. When I came back I really felt the need of helping abused victims because there is no support for them in Sri Lanka at all.
There is no government support system, the family does not support, and also the society interprets it as the fault of the woman. They always expect that the woman should build the family. So, these are the reasons I really felt like I want to help and also to be the voice because I did not have a voice when I was going through the abusive situation. It is not easy for somebody to raise their voice and ask for help. I am now advocating as a voice for the voiceless.
What kind of work does that involve to speak against domestic violence?
I have done television interviews on domestic violence to reach out with that message. I also conduct counselling sessions individually because sometimes they just need somebody to listen to them.
I am conducting workshops for victims of domestic abuse and workshops on sexual rights. There is a need for it because we are so afraid to talk about these issues. I share my personal story to encourage them. I enjoy doing these things because I feel like my teachings really empower people. When I was doing the workshops I felt that there was a need to share my story. Then others shared their stories.
To go to the next level, those women now need good jobs. I feel like still we are not ready to go to that level. There is no place for them. That is where I feel like there is much to do. Brining financial sustainability to such women and also creating awareness in the society that abuse is wrong. It does not matter who is abused, the victim should be taken care of because, especially, when a woman is a victim the society and family also puts pressure on her. We need to create more awareness. It is a long path to go. It is just a start, what I am doing.
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act came to place in 2005, in Sri Lanka. That is more than a decade ago. The people that you meet in the workshops and others who come to you, what is actually happening at the ground level?
Many women are not getting child support. Recently, I met a single mother. The husband was harassing her even when the court has told him to pay her every month a certain amount as child support. She had been compelled to tell her ex-husband that she did not want his money at all so that he will just leave her alone. Luckily, she had been able to take care of the child because she has a sustainable job. But I don’t think everybody can do that. The court is not following up or doing something about it. It is also a long process here. It does not happen easily.
There is a lot of denial by the husband. Recently, I met a girl whose father has denied to support her voluntarily. As a result, they don’t have enough and had been compelled to file a case for child support. It is very difficult to get that support. There is also not much from the government in terms of child support. Unless the woman has a good job that enables her to take care of the whole family, by her own self, financially it is a big issue.
In particular, in the grassroots level it is a struggle because most of the women are unemployed. Another issue is that the women are paid a lesser wage for labour than men. For instance, in Mullaitivu, for men it is 1200 rupees per day and for a woman it is 500 rupees per day. They do the same hard labour. But they don’t get that much of job opportunities like the males do. The financial struggle is the biggest struggle.
One time a woman called me and told me she was beaten up. I was at a religious institution at that time. I asked the officials there whether they could help this woman and shelter her there for just one night. They said that she must have done something wrong. And there were three reasons put forth; she must not have cooked well, she must have gone out with somebody, or she must be refusing to sleep with the husband. That really shocked me, seeing that the society was not ready to help a woman who is beaten.
It does not matter what the man does the fault is always placed on the woman. That why it has become so difficult for a woman to come out and ask for help. If she does, she is then going to be punished by the society. Therefore, some women feel that it is okay to be in that abusive situation because nobody is going to understand them and they are going to repetitively blame her.
It is a shame culture. The family does not want to have the daughter back who is divorced. A divorced woman has to marry a divorced man although a divorced man can marry anybody. It is not a big deal for a man but for a woman remarriage is a challenge and if she has a child then it becomes more difficult to get remarried.
All these things make it very difficult. Most of the time I have met women who are divorced but they say that their husband is abroad. They do not really want to say I am divorced. Women refuse to identify themselves as single also because they want to protect themselves from other men that tend to look at her as a sexual object.
Those are the issues although the act is there and the law is there.
Earlier you said how you asked for shelter on behalf of a victim of domestic abuse who had no place to go and was denied. How important is it to have immediate support systems, such as shelters, for women to take action against domestic violence?
The society should encourage women to speak out. It does not mean that they have to get divorced. But that temporary support and protecting that person during that phase is so important.
Even if we have shelters, I don’t know how many women will have that support to walk out and reach there. One time I met a girl in a bus. We started to talk and I told her that I was divorced. Then she started to share her story with me. She was running away from her husband. She ended up in a bus and she just wanted to run away from him. There was no place for her to go, despite all these religious places we have in the country. She just got on a bus, thinking that she will reach her destination somewhere after she gets off from the bus. That is the sad part.
Women are scared to share because they are not listened to, always judged, and always told what to do. Caring for the family is prioratised and the advice they receive discourages leaving a marriage for the sake of children. No one sees that, if the husband is abusive, it will be an abusive environment for the child, too. They do not think holistically about abuse as a problem.
I have also experienced in my personal life that victim mentality. I was also abused as a child. From that day onwards, I did not have any self-confidence. I was in shame and guilt. I felt like it was my fault. I could not tell it to anybody. In my thirties, I realised that it is not my fault. From eight until I was thirty, I was blaming myself for what has happened. That victim mentality passed down from my dad to my ex-husband. I realized that eventually I had to break it. When someone is born into an abusive home, no matter where they go or whatever they feel, abuse is normal for them. Most of the time people do not realize it is abuse because they have been victimized.
What is it really like to be in that abusive situation? What goes through your mind?
Later on I went for counselling. I understood the cycle of violence and I was amazed at how exactly it happened. The first thing my ex-husband did was to make me isolated from everybody. It started with male friends. None of them were in Canada anyway. But the first thing he said was no contacts with any male friends. I believed it when he said I trust you but I can’t trust any of the males.
In the Tamil culture, we say no matter how the husband is he is the one, whether he is a stone or grass he is everything for you. I believed this. It was then that he disconnected me from my female friends. He said that they all are jealous of you because you have a good life now. So, I believed in that, too. I did not have a Facebook account. I did not have email. It kept me isolated from everybody.
I was not allowed to go outside and I was totally kept inside. One day he takes all my clothes, whatever I loved. Some of them were not fashionable but they had sentimental value and memories. He puts everything into a garbage bag and goes and throws it. That time also I kept quiet. I basically became a puppet. Whatever he says, I did it. At one point, I realized that I may have I lost my mind. Because I really felt like I could not function on my own without him telling me what to do. I was doing things exactly the way he wanted. That was scary.
I had a wake up call within me. My father also undermined me; he repetitively questioned me, saying I could not do anything. That verbal and emotional abuse undermined me as much as the physical abuse. The physical pain lasted for three days. The verbal abuse continues.
I studied English in Russia. I had so many English-speaking friends. But when I went with my ex-husband he said your English is very bad. I believed every word. As women, when it comes to husband and father, we accept everything and think they are right. So, it is a very hard thing to come out of it.
I did not plan that I will get divorced or it will turn into that. It happened without planning because I got tired of this beating. I just wanted someone to tell him to stop. Then the police got involved [in Canada]. And it went into a direction that I did not have the courage to do alone. When I read online it said to call the police in a situation like this. But I did not have the courage to call the police. If I did not get that initial support, I could have not been here today.
That is also why I want to help others. There might be women like me who need support to even to go to a police station. They cannot do all these things alone because they may have a very negative self-image of themselves. They would not believe that they could survive on their own. When I moved into an apartment on my own, for the first time, I never thought that I was able to take care of myself. It was really scary.
At the beginning, I was crying a lot, in particular, when I was in a shelter for abused women. I did not know how tomorrow will be and I was scared to face that tomorrow. I never knew, being a single woman, how to face that. It is very difficult for a dependent person to divorce a husband.
How did you make peace with your past?
My past was really bothering me. So, one of the first things I did was to make peace with my past. It was like taking a journey. Most people say don’t look at your past, don’t dig it, let it go. But I knew that it was inside.
I went to Kenya to help kids who were victims of abuse. Until that moment, I had totally forgotten that I was also abused as a child. I had just moved on while it was within me. That experience really opened me up. I understood that so many things that were related to my past were continuing into my present.
Making peace with the past was a journey that took almost a year for me. I am not saying it is done. Certain things may come up as I go. But at least I have dealt with the basic things. I went back and really accepted the past because it is a history. I also let it go. There was so much anger, hatred, and frustration and I felt these were my enemies within me.
I did so much art work. I wrote about all my fears. I went to different counselling courses. I also became a counsellor to myself. The methods and techniques I learnt while studying counselling, I used those for myself. I really had to take care of that little girl who was hurt and who was in pain. There was a time when my priority was that little child in me. I spent hours with her, talking to her, and showing love. Falling in love with myself was one of the greatest things in my life.
Today, you are a motivational speaker, you conduct workshops for women, and you write poetry. What are some of the things that you are doing now that is making you happy?
I never knew that I had a talent to write or a form of writing exited within me. Once, I was at a performance. A woman there challenged me, asking why do you Tamils only want to become doctors, engineers, and lawyers? Why can’t you create in a beautiful artistic way? That made me go back home and ask myself what is inside me. Can’t I dance? Can’t I sing?
The first writing I made is Jaffna Man. It is a poetic form. The first time when I wrote I did not know what was coming out. But something came out. Then, everybody believed it is a poem. Since then I have been reciting and writing poems. I have now become a poet. That is how the journey started. Most of the time, writing is a very personal healing. Even the poem Jaffna Man is based on my grandfather. All my poetry is based on my personal experiences.
I wrote another poem, Army Uncle. It is my experiences as a seven-year-old girl. When I started to write I was crying. It needs so much courage to go back to those shoes to that time. But because of that pain it became a very powerful tool to really see how as a child I was affected and it has also really inspired people.
I know that words are powerful and words have meaning. Words can touch people’s hearts. I am writing and posting all this poetry as long as people can be benefitted through it.
I have set up my own Dr Maureen Facebook page. I manage a public page and put there what people should know, creating awareness and sharing my story to bring hope to somebody.
Being called a writer, makes me so proud than being called a doctor. I also feel that it is my own identity that I have discovered. I have not been asked by someone else. I became a doctor for my family. I don’t know how much I really wanted to become a doctor. But writer is my own choice, my own identity, and that gives me so much joy to do that.
Date of Interview: 12 December 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage