Abused woman hopes daughters will avoid same trap

Victim speaks up amid Dubai foundation's month-long campaign to raise awareness of child abuse.

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DUBAI // Augustine was nearly an adult when her father beat her for the last time.

"I was 17, 18," she remembers. "And I caught the belt when he was about to hit me."

She held the belt and told him: "I'm a grown-up girl. Do you recognise that?"

Augustine is 35 now, with two daughters of her own. But two decades later, some memories from her childhood in Sharjah linger, etched in her mind: that last time her father tried to hit her; the day he swung her around his head and dropped her, threatening to crack her skull; her yellow dress, covered in blood.

This month Dubai Foundation for Women and Children is holding a campaign to raise awareness of child abuse, urging parents to use non-violent means of discipline.

Augustine does not need a campaign to remind her.

"I think I spent my whole childhood just waiting to grow up," she says. "Saying, maybe everybody is doing it. It's wrong. I won't do this. I won't forget."

Today she lives in Dubai with her daughters, aged 6 and 10. Augustine is her middle name.

She is a well-dressed woman with dark eyes and an easy smile. She has an MBA. She works for a multinational company. But when she sees her parents, her past rushes back.

Augustine was born in 1976, the second of three sisters. Her family is from India. Her father, a crane operator, came to the UAE in 1973. He was raised by a stepfather, who beat him often.

"He told us we were lucky we were not being hit that bad," Augustine says.

Augustine's mother was a housewife. She married at 19. Soon after, Augustine's older sister was born.

One of Augustine's earliest memories is her parents telling her sister: "You ruined our married life."

Augustine says: "Funny, but they blamed her."

The girls were hit throughout their youth.

"I was probably less tortured, if I can say, than the other two," Augustine's younger sister says. "But we came from a poor family, and I guess it was just my dad working - and I guess the frustration used to come down at home to the children."

"I remember crying every single day as a child, even as a teenager," she says.

The day her father swung Augustine around and dropped her, she had missed school. Another day, the girls were beaten for laughing too loudly. "These are the sort of things we got hit for," Augustine says. "Or if, you know, I damaged my shoes or stained my dress."

The physical abuse deeply affected Augustine's older sister, who has since moved to New Zealand. For Augustine, the emotional abuse was the worst part.

"They told us that we were useless, ugly, monsters every day," she says.

When she was about 9, a family friend began to molest her. Augustine - whose parents rarely touched her affectionately - felt confused.

She tried to tell her mother "so many times". Finally, her mother walked in on the man touching her.

"After he left, she said to me: 'Next time don't sit next to him.'"

Few outsiders knew what was happening in Augustine's family. "I think, you know, people were just too scared to interfere," she says. "But worst of all, it was just us protecting them. If I had a mark I would say, 'I fell down'."

Until she was 13, Augustine thought most families were like hers. When she realised that was untrue, she says: "I started standing up, and we were beaten more for that."

When she was 16, Augustine met the man she would eventually marry. He became her boyfriend.

A few years later, she decided to confront her parents about her childhood.

"My mother sat there and she cried, she just cried throughout the whole thing," Augustine says.

Her father listened. He seemed to understand. Then he withdrew into himself. Augustine thinks he felt guilty.

"The physical abuse stopped, but the emotional abuse got worse and worse," she says.

At 24, she married her old boyfriend.

"I was wanting to go out, get out of that home," she says.

By that time, her boyfriend had already hit her. She thought it was an isolated incident. Then he hit her again.

"I had a mark on my face for about two weeks," she says.

Her mother asked how she got hurt. Augustine lied.

Each of the three sisters was affected differently by their childhood.

"The eldest one, she probably took 30-plus years to get over it," Augustine's younger sister says. "I quickly got over it."

Augustine, her sister says, is "still bruised".

Vaishali, a friend of Augustine's since school, says: "She hasn't been able to make proper decisions in life. She failed to choose the right guy because she thought abuse was normal."

Augustine blames herself for staying with her husband. "I should have walked out," she says. "Simple as that."

Whenever she was ready to pack her bags, he seemed to change. "You go through the same cycle over and over," she says.

She was too busy to dwell on her past. Her first daughter was born when she was 25. She worked full-time and attended evening classes at a local university.

"When I was just married, I was actually OK," Augustine says. Her childhood caught up with her when she recognised her marriage was abusive.

"I was putting up with it because of my childhood," she says. "It actually came back to haunt me."

What helped Augustine most was talking about the abuse. She spoke to friends and relatives. She wrote anonymously on online forums.

"As long as it was a secret, they were holding the power," she says. "This wasn't planned this way, but now I see it. They don't have the power any more."

Eventually, Augustine reached a breaking point. She sought marriage counselling. She joined a new company and was surprised when male colleagues seemed interested in her. Her husband always told her she was ugly, she says.

Augustine separated from him about five years ago. Her divorce was finalised in 2010.

Since then, life has not been easy. She does not have full custody of her daughters. She dated another man, and when they broke up late last year, she attempted suicide.

In November her ex-husband had a heart attack. "He's moved in," Augustine says. "He's actually living with me and the kids. Mad, but that's how it is."

Her ex-husband reminds her to take her anti-depressant medication. Occasionally, she makes sure he's eating properly.

In February, Augustine said: "I sometimes think this is, again, not able to break the cycle." This month she is more optimistic. She wants to move out of their apartment. A friend is paying a lawyer to help her obtain full custody of her girls.

Augustine still sees her parents every few months. Their relationship is strained. She said her mother and father would not agree to an interview. They mostly deny the abuse happened.

On her mobile phone, alongside photographs of her daughters, Augustine keeps a photograph of her mother, staring into the distance, her face softened by age.

Her mother struggles with vertigo now. Augustine's father has given up on her. "I should feel horrible for my mother, because she's so ill, and he's just taken a step back," she says. "And I feel very little. I actually think it's karma."

As life gets better, her attitude is easing. "More towards my dad," she said. "But my mother? These are the people who are supposed to protect you."

She worries for her children.

"More than what they do in their careers, I hope that, because of me putting up with it, they don't end up with men like their father. I try. I think they are OK.

"I do see there are times when I think - that I worry they might repeat this."

She hopes they will break the cycle.