Sex Relationships

Domestic violence survivor on a mission to conquer New Zealand

Emilia Lahti survived a violent relationship in 2010. Now, she's running the length of New Zealand to engage with communities about domestic violence.

By Ellie Hooper
Emilia Lahti
Emilia Lahti

In 2010, Emilia Lahti was in an abusive relationship. For eighteen months, the Finnish woman dealt with controlling behaviour, vicious comments and eventually physical violence, at the hands of someone who “slowly diminished her, bit by bit”.

Living in New York, lying to her family and friends about what was going on, Emilia had started to believe no one would care about her situation.

“Because of the things that he would say to me: ‘No one will believe you, no one is going to care,’ I actually absorbed that and thought I was all alone,” Lahti explains.

“The human condition is almost to think ‘what’s wrong with me?’ or ‘what am I doing wrong?’ rather than realising that the other person is an abuser.”

Lahti, who was working for the Embassy of Finland at the time, did end up getting police involved, and her case was eventually picked up by the Attorney General, who pushed her case after seeing photos of the final night of abuse she suffered.

Watch Emilia's TED talk below

“I felt a strange sense of shame that I had been through that, and when I looked around I struggled to find positive narratives of men and women who had overcome violence; who weren’t portrayed as damaged goods,” the 35-year-old explains.

Lahti was so frustrated with the narrative ‘why did you stay?’ rather than ‘why did someone do this to you?’ she decided to take action.

She quit her job and embarked on a PhD in applied psychology, centering on the concept of ‘Sisu’.

‘Sisu’ is an ancient Finish construct that doesn’t have a literal translation into English, but can be described in terms like “grit, bravery, resilience”.

As Lahti says: “It’s about reaching the point where you think you can’t go on anymore, but then you get access to a sort of ‘extra tank’ that’s not available to you day to day. Once there you can push through further. It stands for extraordinary determination when facing adversity”.

Indeed in Finland, Sisu is essential to their national sense of self.

Emilia is working to eradicate the stigma for those who overcome interpersonal violence
Emilia is working to eradicate the stigma for those who overcome interpersonal violence

Lahti explains that one of the things she finds hardest to understand is why, when we hold other survival stories in such high esteem, we don’t do the same for those that have survived violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

“Why is there no space for mature, open conversation around interpersonal violence, and why do we feel the shame we do as survivors?” she asks.

As a result, Lahti says she wanted to choose the most “bad ass” thing she could do to start a conversation around the issue, and chose New Zealand, a place she fell in love with a decade ago, in which to do it.

In November, she will begin running the length of the country, stopping off in towns along the way to "open the conversation" about interpersonal violence, and encourage story sharing.

“I want to end the stigma and shame placed on individuals who have experienced domestic violence, and create a zero tolerance attitude towards it that we need.”

You can visit her website, Sisu not Silence, here.

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Watch Emilia's full TED talk below.