PROVIDENCE — She never thought of it as abuse unless things became physical — a scar or bruise that could be evidence, sexual abuse where the victim may be doubted or even blamed. So when Francesca Raoelison was sitting in a Virginia community college classroom, listening to familiar words being strung together, she was surprised to learn the phrases she’d so often heard could signal abuse.
“You’re too sensitive.”
“It was just a joke.”
“You’re always playing the victim.”
“You make me like this.”
But this time, the words rang differently. The speaker was an instructor in a peer educator training session, not a romantic partner, parent, or friend. And they were explaining that these phrases that were so familiar to her were key indicators of emotional and psychological abuse.
Emotional abuse includes repeated belittlement, criticism, insults, humiliation, gaslighting, and put-downs, she learned. An abuser will actively point out flaws instead of supporting growth or encouragement. The repetitive intimidation, guilt-tripping, and manipulation is about the abuser having control over the victim.
In Madagascar, where Raoelison grew up, she said, “These behaviors are in plain sight but are completely unseen.”
After she left the peer training session, Raoelison began researching emotional abuse and discovered that 84 percent of Malagasy children between the ages of 2 and 14 have experienced some form of psychological or physical abuse in their own homes, according to a 2018 UNICEF report on ending violence against children in Madagascar.
And what happens to kids at home escalates in adulthood. UNICEF also found that 47 percent of girls and 44 percent of boys think that a husband is justified in beating his wife or partner under certain circumstances.
“I began to realize that all of my life, I had grown up in an emotionally abusive environment without realizing it,” Raoelison told the Globe. “I was shocked to recognize these behaviors [during the peer educator class]. I knew each one of them, but I never knew they were considered emotional abuse.”
In Madagascar, Raoelison said it was common to walk down the street and see couples fighting or parents screaming at their children. No one says anything, and it’s possible that people don’t realize the impact of their actions because it’s what they themselves experienced as children.
She learned that emotional abuse has a direct impact on an individual’s sense of identity, dignity, self-esteem, and mental health. The consequences can be long-lasting. And with that knowledge, so many things suddenly made sense.
“My lack of confidence, lack of self-love, lack of boundaries, and my fear of taking risks,” she said. “I was too afraid to be criticized. I was conditioned to think that whatever I did wasn’t good enough, so why even try?
“It never occurred to most of us that it could be different,” she said.
She decided to dedicate herself to breaking the cycle and encourage healing — even though, she said, she was afraid that people wouldn’t support her vision of challenging the status quo.
Swallowing her fear, she posted a video in 2018 in which she discussed the prevalence of the problem in Madagascar. She expected backlash, but instead received messages from people telling her how much they related to what she said. Messages filled her inbox from people not just in Madagascar, but from China, India, Brazil, Pakistan, Morocco, and her new home, the US. People shared personal stories of abuse within their families, at school, at work, and in their romantic relationships.
She was featured on MTVU Stories, now known as Cheddar University, which brought her story to the mainstream. She was selected by the Clinton Foundation as a student leader and spearheaded the project Ending Domestic Violence in Antananarivo, Madagascar for the Clinton Global Initiative.
The response validated not only her own feelings, but it also showed the extent of the problem.
Raoelison transferred from Northern Virginia Community College to Brown University, and in October 2019 officially launched Omena, a nonprofit that teaches school-aged Malagasy children and adolescents how to recognize emotional abuse in their own relationships. She launched a pilot program and traveled to Madagascar, where she received permission to start running in-school workshops to raise awareness and teach elementary school-aged children how to identify toxic relationships and promote healthy ones, in hopes of breaking the cycle of emotional abuse.
“They might sound like really easy tools here [in the U.S.], but in Madagascar, we don’t talk about our emotions. People have always thought emotions mean you’re weak,” said Raoelison.
She said it is still challenging to reach parents to give them the social-emotional tools their children are now learning. “But what is happening is that the children are becoming more aware that when their parents are putting them down or criticizing them, they know it’s not them. They’re not the problem,” she said.
Because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, Raoelison has spent the last year helping spread awareness of emotional abuse throughout Madagascar from her apartment in Providence. She trained people already on the ground overseas, hosted over 30 online workshops and support groups, and has served more than 350 students. She has plans to train 50 more peer educators already in Madagascar, and is building a mobile app to scale their reach, making it possible for people to share stories, feel valued, and find resources in their communities.
“I did pressure myself, at first, to solve the problem as fast as possible, but I realized it might take decades before we could see tangible outcomes,” she said.
She’s spoken at conferences in the US and around the world about her mission. After each talk, she said she hears from audience members telling them about their own stories. Some realize they’ve been in toxic relationships. Some realize they’ve been the abuser.
“I have discovered that emotional abuse exists everywhere in the world. In developing countries like mine, it is a cultural norm passed down from generation to generation,” said Raoelison. “I believe we can reverse this status quo and establish new norms based on empathy, words of encouragement, and healthy relationships.
“But today,” she added, “I feel hopeful.”