When ‘normal’ shouldn’t be normal

On the island, for six weeks at a time, I live in a little studio apartment that is part of a larger building. There is no space to hide and not a lot of room for dancing like no one can see you, but it has become a safe space for the cleaning ladies who work in the building. It’s not unusual to arrive back for lunch in-between classes to find two or three women sitting on the available seats and debriefing about the world. Every so often, they’ll stay and chat as I make lunch and listen to their stories.
Some of their stories have been shocking.
Lack of access to medical care here means that many of these women are dealing with physical pain that a doctor back in Australia could deal with in a second. They are used to being told that it’s all just “women’s issues” and “normal”.

And so I drive them to hospital when I can and try to say comforting things and listen to their home remedies.
And I check my privilege because I am so fortunate to have a very marvellous doctor who has never, and would never, say something like that.

I have a cleaning lady allocated to my room and I met her my very first day here. She is the most gorgeous woman who comes in every morning saying that “everything is good today Kathy, everything is good”. If I’m here, we chat as she cleans and I make cups of tea that are never sweet enough for her. She’s taken to leaving her bag by the side of the couch here because it’s safe. She has decided to be like a big sister to me here – and she is – I utterly adore her.
Except the other day, as she put more sugar in her tea, and we sat in the cool of the air-conditioning (just for a minute because I’m always scared I’ll get her into trouble), she told me about her night. How her boyfriend had been trying to call her the day before but her phone battery was flat (which it was as she checked if we had the same phone). The boyfriend was waiting when she got home – enraged that she’d not answered her phone – accusing her of all sorts of things including wearing “the short pants”. This seemed to be something terrible because my cleaning lady promised me that she’d never worn short pants. I told her that short pants are not a crime and that she could wear whatever on earth she wanted. Then, in the same voice, continuing the story without missing a beat, she explained how he had grabbed by the hair, yelling and shaking her, in front of her friends, screaming that he would kill her. That he had stopped and left and the situation had ended. And she had gone to bed and come to work the next morning and was now drinking tea in my room.
She was surprised at my shock – “he really shouldn’t do that?”; surprised at my upset for her – “He makes me pain [pointing to her heart] but I am OK”.

I don’t know what to do or how to help – how to balance the differences in cultural expectations. But I rage when people justify abuse as “just how it is” because that just means these stories get told in the same way as any other story and that should never be the case. It shouldn’t be just normal.

For all the small bits of good I try to do here in teaching counselling and casework, I am just putting a tiny bandaid on a wound that is much bigger and more infected than I can imagine.
I feel like I am just yelling at the sky sometimes.
I feel useless that all I can offer is tea and a safe space for tiny parts of her day.

I think the thing I struggle with most here is knowing that I will leave and that my ability to make decisions about my future is very much based in that privilege. I got to choose this job for reasons beyond a fear of poverty, and I am able to make decisions for my future outside of that basic need. Not everyone does. I worry that my advice is very much borne from privilege but then I refuse to tell her that “it’s just the way it is”.

But I don’t know what else to do, other than to be shocked and upset for her, to give her safe space when she needs, to agree wholeheartedly when she raises the possibility of leaving this man. To learn how to make sweet enough tea. To be a friend.

Any and all advice is welcome.