Lee Ann Bernard on Speaking Out, Letting Go and Finding the Courage to Walk Away

As the 16 days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence come to a close, Lee Ann Bernard shares her story of pain, “endurance”, courage and triumph in her fight against Gender Based Violence.

Can we start from the beginning. How did the abuse start? Were there any early signs before it escalated into physical violence?

To begin with I was in an abusive relationship with the father of my daughter before I got married at the age of 25. I thought getting married would rescue me from the abuse. He was a married man and I couldn’t move on because he controlled every step of my life. So when I met this young gentleman whom I knew from my high school days I thought “This is it.” He was 28 when we got married. A week before our engagement he was arrested for assaulting his ex-girlfriend over a money dispute. I dismissed it as her just being bitter over our upcoming wedding. When you are in love you are often blind to the signs. Just 6 weeks into the marriage he started being verbally abusive and it eventually escalated to physical abuse.

What made you walk away when you now did?

His family never welcomed me from the start because of the baby I had out of wedlock and they wouldn’t assist in counseling us, even when I repeatedly called his sister and asked her to intervene. I then asked him if we could engage the pastors but he refused. The last hiding I got was the breaking point for me and showed me just how insensitive he was to my feelings. I asked myself if this wasn’t exactly what I had been running away from in the first place; only to marry into it again. So I waited for him to go to church because he was a pastor in my parent’s ministry, and then I cooked him a three course meal and left him a note telling him that it would be his last meal from me as his wife.

It takes a lot of courage to speak out. What made you come out to the world and share your experience?

It takes boldness and courage to walk away. I tried walking away several times but my family always insisted that I go back only to experience the abuse all over again. I am coming forward and speaking out because I know that there is someone out there who is going through the same experience and wondering “If I speak out who will listen? Where will I go? Who cares?” I want them to know they don’t deserve to be treated any less than any other human being. That they should feel free and strong enough to come forward and get help.

What were some of the barriers to your coming forward?

Every time I spoke about the abuse to his family the question they always asked me was what I had done to him, because they had never seen him in that state. So I began to keep quiet and to accept that it was all my fault. At times we allow ourselves to succumb to the violence because we don’t know our way out. My parents were marriage counselors so they didn’t believe in divorce. This killed me inside, wondering if they were waiting for me to get some serious bruises first for them to help me get out or if getting hospitalized was what it would take for his family to believe me. There was a lot of doubt in trying to get someone to stand with me so I could get out. The biggest barrier was definitely worrying about what people would say.

How did the abuse impact you?

It torments you mentally. Till today if someone bangs a door or screams my heart skips a beat. Arguing affects me; it makes me relive some of those moments. I try to avoid this by occupying myself where I am celebrated. I find that I can’t trust again, I’m always safeguarding my heart. And I’m always defensive in any form of communication. How I’m overcoming the trauma is by speaking about it to young girls and women who are currently living through the abuse. I find that speaking about it helps me heal and most of all forgive my abusers. If we hold on to the hate then that means they are still in control of our happiness. So I let go and never looked back.

After the divorce, did you have any people who helped you in the healing process?

No one did. I just stood up for myself.

Now that you have shared your experience with the world, have you faced any criticism or judgments and how have you dealt with it?

I received a lot of criticism because he was a pastor and I was labeled as the woman who broke up her home and didn’t fight for it. I lost friends because they were married and they couldn’t associate with a divorcee. It was hard because I moved to a big church, away from my parent’s ministry and I couldn’t answer to everyone as to why I left. So I kept away from public gatherings until I realized that life has to move on. I picked myself up again and I realised I could smile again.

In a society that still carries old fashioned, traditional beliefs, what do you think people should know about GBV?

Gender Based Violence is real and gone are the days of upholding society’s expectations on how you should stomach abuse and keep your family issues to yourself. Because then you may discover the damage too late with a body in a coffin. Let’s not wait for it to escalate to that extent. Stop it after the first signs. Don’t suffer alone in silence.

What advice would you give to any woman out there who is facing the same situation and what suggestions do you have to make it safer for her to come forward?

You may not feel comfortable with going to report to law enforcement, which is ok, but please speak to a close friend or family. Get help for yourself first and foremost. I had no one but myself and that can break you down emotionally, because for me, everyone knew me to be a strong character. You may think you are protecting his image by keeping it to yourself but guess what; he is not affected by your tears and he is not going to stop. It may seem quiet after a fight but it’s definitely going to happen again. Please SPEAK OUT.

With everything behind you now, you are on a new path. What are your plans for the future?

I’m now setting my goals to raise my three beautiful kids and to become a God fearing and business minded woman of God. Am I planning on marrying again? No, not at all. If at all he is out there, I’m sure it’s going to come as a surprise. I have lived my full share of life in the love circle and what’s left is not to be expectant but to take it one day at a time.

Being a leading news anchor on ZBC TV, how has that been in context of your GBV experiences?

It’s been tough I won’t lie. I faced rejection both in the workplace and from those who don’t know me personally on social media. I had to swim in the deep end and fortunately for me I learnt from the best. Rumbidzai Takawira held my hand through the storm and I thank her for that.

You were recently nominated for the SADC Success Awards 2020 Best News Anchor Award. What does this nomination mean to you?

I’m flabbergasted! It’s such a huge achievement especially because I’ve been on screen for just two years now. I am humbled and grateful to be recognized for the nomination.

Besides being a news anchor you are also an entrepreneur. Could you tell us more about your entrepreneurial journey and your branding business, Wincobrands…

At the age of 30 I made a vow not to work for anyone anymore. I set up my own business and it wasn’t smooth, especially in the first 2 years but branching out has shown me that anyone can achieve whatever they put their mind to, despite the challenges we face in life. So now my sister and I run WINCOBRANDS, named after my three kids Whitney, Corey and Winnie.

2021 is just around the corner and we have to ask- What are your Top 3 resolutions for next year?

1.To set up a strong marketing team for the brand,
2.To become a Brand Ambassador for a leading company in Zimbabwe,
3.Lastly, to help more women and men fight for their voices to be heard in the fight against Gender Based Violence.

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