By Michael Fallahay, LMHC [Peace Corps volunteer]
Gender-based violence against an intimate partner is one of the most under-reported and un-prosecuted crimes occurring in St. Kitts and Nevis. The recent sentencing of singer Chris Brown for his assault on Rhianna in California highlighted that partner abuse is not just a one-time event but a pattern of behaviour using power and control within an intimate relationship that threatens a person’s well-being. While “domestic violence” also refers to the abuse of children, this article focuses on the dynamics and effects of abuse of a current or former intimate partner.
Abuse can occur in any relationship—married, living together, dating, young, old, heterosexual, or homosexual. Abusers and their victims can be from any sex, race, culture, religion, economic class, career, or education level. In the U.S., 25% of women and 8% of men report being physically or sexually assaulted by a partner at some point in their lives. In the past 10 years, 7 women in St. Kitts and Nevis have been murdered by a male partner.
Domestic abuse often includes multiple forms of abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, spiritual, and financial. Tactics commonly used by male abusers towards their female partners include the use of intimidation, coercion, and threats; isolating the partner from family and friends; destroying her self-esteem by making her think she is ugly, crazy, stupid, or incompetent; minimizing his abusive behaviour and blaming the victim for the abuse; turning her children against her; treating her like a servant; and denying her access to money or a job.
Social and cultural pressures contribute to these behaviours. While women can be abusive too, violence in society, the media, legal systems, and churches that for centuries denied equal rights to women, as well as rigid gender roles, men with multiple sexual partners while expecting women to be monogamous, have all created conditions that encourage some men to be abusive.
The Cycle of Abuse
Abusive relationships can be confusing to the victim and often occur in a cycle beginning with increasing tension. The explosion is the point that most observers would see as abusive – physical or sexual abuse (such as raping or hitting the victim) or a verbal tirade. Immediately afterwards, an abuser may apologize, saying it will never happen again, and also romance his partner with gifts. To outsiders, this honeymoon period may make the relationship seem not only normal but very good. The succeeding calm phase may feel normal and fine to both parties, thereby causing the victim to question whether the relationship is in fact abusive. This cycle, however, increases in frequency and severity over time.
A child’s exposure to violence is child emotional abuse and may contribute to the cycle continuing into the next generation of perpetrators and victims. Children witnessing or experiencing abuse contributes to youth violence.
Since abusers often appear charming and Christian in public, are there any warning signs? Some signs include controlling, possessive, aggressive, or violent behaviour; blaming others for the abusers’ problems or feelings; jealousy; lack of empathy; pushing for immediate commitment in new relationships; and being ‘Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde’ (i.e., being two-faced/having a ‘good’ side and an ‘evil’ side). These signs may also appear in teen relationships in the form of frequent phone calls or text messages from the male asking what his girlfriend is doing, whom she is with, what she is wearing, etc. At first, all this attention can easily be misinterpreted as signs of love, when they actually may be subtle forms of control.
Why do abusers behave this way? Abusive behaviour is NOT CAUSED by use of alcohol or drugs, nor stress, anger, disagreements, or mental illness, although substance abuse may be a contributing factor. The person behaving abusively is the only person responsible for the abuse. It is not caused by anything said or done by the person being abused. Partner abuse is driven by a choice to dominate those close to them. No one is born violent; it is a learned behaviour and a choice each time someone speaks or acts abusively.
How Can Others Help?
It may take many attempts before a victim can successfully leave an abusive relationship. Frequently, the victim may still love the abuser, hope that he may change, and be financially dependent on him. She may also take her marital vows seriously or not want to separate children from their father. Leaving, however, may not end the abuse but may increase it, since the abuser may feel he is losing control. This does not mean that persons being abused should not leave, just that people need to understand the risks and seek support. U.S. studies show that 75% of women who are killed by an intimate partner are murdered after they leave the relationship.
So how do we break the cycle of domestic violence? First we need to listen to, validate, and empower the victim to decide what is best for her while respecting her autonomy and confidentiality. Help her to develop a safety plan including possible places to go. (This is difficult in a small country with no shelters for abused women.) The Department of Gender Affairs (467-1427, 467-1497) is a resource for counselling and for obtaining Protection Orders that prohibit the abuser from contacting the victimMarital counselling is NOT helpful in abusive relationships since the victim may be afraid to talk about the abuse or may be at risk for further abuse afterwards.
Abusers must be held accountable under the law so that they and everyone understand that domestic abuse in all its forms will not be tolerated in the Federation. This requires a coordinated community response where abusers are arrested and prosecuted, without requiring victims to be present, and are Court-ordered to attend a Batterers Intervention Programme to learn how to change their controlling, abusive behaviour. (Men who wish to volunteer for this group are welcome to call 467-1497, 467-1427). Government, the justice system, churches, schools, employers, media, and men all need to be part of this accountability and teaching process. Our youth must learn that healthy, respectful, loving relationships are based on equal partnership and that power and control morally destroy abusers, their victims, and our society.