April Hernandez Castillo has a number of high-profile acting credits under her belt, including guest spots on hit shows like "New Amsterdam," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," "30 Rock," and "Dexter." In 2007, Castillo starred opposite Oscar-winner Hilary Swank in the drama "Freedom Writers."
But before her success, there was life-threatening trauma. Like a regrettably large number of women, the 41-year-old has experienced intimate partner violence in her past. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) almost one-third (27%) of women worldwide aged 15-49 years who have been in a relationship report they've been subjected to some form of physical and/or sexual violence by their intimate partner.
Castillo says she was in a relationship that was abusive — verbally, emotionally and physically — from the age of 16 to almost 20. It was her first love. "I didn't grow up in an abusive home. I was never exposed to abuse. I didn't have father issues. I was never sexually abused or assaulted by my dad. My father was a very strong figure in my life," says Castillo. "But when I fell into my abusive relationship... it was a situation where you didn't even know it was happening right away."
"One day we were driving in the car and he was going 90 miles an hour and threatening to crash it," she said. "There were other times when he would bite me leaving a mark. There was choking. There was slapping. All those things that you don't assume will happen to you and suddenly you are involved."
Castillo details her traumatic experiences in her memoir “Embracing Me,” which explores her survival of intimate partner violence. Castillo says while she wasn't the victim of sexual abuse, the physical and emotional abuse she endured at one point had her contemplating suicide. Castillo said the sense of shame and isolation is common bond that most women involved in intimate partner violence share.
"It's a violation that you carry with you and then the idea of hoping someone believes you when you finally share your story," she said. "I think that's one of the biggest things, especially the sexual assault survivor struggle... is anyone going to believe my story?"
According to a recent report released by WHO, 1 in 4 girls and young women between the ages of 15 and 24 who have been in a romantic relationship experienced violence from a partner. Getting the word out about available resources is one reason April has been designated as Sexual Assault Awareness month.
The impact of the pandemic and resulting lockdown on sexual assaults is not yet clear. But the New York Post, citing NYPD data, noted sexual assaults in New York City surged 322 percent to 38 during the week of March 29-April 4 from the 9 reported the same period last year. Perhaps not coincidentally that surge coincided with warmer and an edict from the city allowing expanded capacity at bars and restaurants.
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), is the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the country. Founded in 1994 the group is the creator and operator of the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Heather Drevna, the Vice President of Communications for RAINN, says the network has assisted approximately 3.5 million survivors and their loved ones with their victim service programs. The group works to educate the public about sexual violence and prevention and also partners with companies to help improve their policies and response to sexual misconduct.
Drevna says information from 2020 is still being compiled. But early data indicates that much like crime across the board dipped nationally in 2020 because of the pandemic, sexual assaults decreased as well. "For instance, dating violence or incidents that stemmed from meeting someone while you were out and likely went down. But we can't know that for sure until the data comes in. On the other hand, things like intimate partner violence and child sexual abuse, we believe the data will have shown to have increased."
Looking back at what she survived, Castillo realizes no one's situation and understands many women may believe they can't extricate themselves from a violent situation, whether it be for financial or other reasons. But she implores any victim of abuse to make a change before it's too late.
"The abuse just kills your dream. It kills your goals. It just kills you very slowly. "There's so much support out in the world. There are so many resources online. And you can reach out to these places and people and know they're there to help you, not to judge you, not to make you feel bad. But they're there to create a safe space," says Castillo. "The silence is what kills you."
Drevna adds, "To survivors who might be struggling with this, there are resources available. We can talk through safety planning. Know that you're not alone."
If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), visit the lifeline crisis chat at www.online.rainn.org, or find your local rape crisis center at www.centers.rainn.org.