HER head bowed, Lisa (not her real name) sobbed uncontrollably, her anguish visibly etched on her wary face. Her attempts at stifling her emotions were unsuccessful and again, the floodgates open. Sitting in the car with her, cocooned in the security of the darkness outside, I could only stroke her arm, the only way I knew to offer comfort.
Just minutes earlier, Lisa had confided to me about the sorry state of her marriage. A marriage where her husband ruled with an iron fist. Where both physical and emotional abuse were the norm, especially when he came home drunk. Not spared were their two daughters, whose witnessing of the marital disintegration was Lisa’s main cause of distress.
Her only thought was to run... but where? And her biggest fear? Losing her daughters to her wealthy businessman husband. After all, she was merely a housewife.
As I write this story, this little episode, which occurred several years ago, comes automatically to mind. Lisa was someone I had befriended and offered a shoulder to cry on whenever the going got tough. But I never quite knew what the cries were about (as she never said anything) until that fateful night.
I counselled her as best I could, and offered to help get her in touch with the relevant parties. She was enthusiastic about changing the course of her life but by the next day... silence. That was to be the last time that she would speak about her desire to take action. Our friendship eventually ran its course and as far as I know, she’s still with the same man and life remains status quo.
“For anything to happen, the woman (or abused) has to want to be helped,” says Milan Sadhwani, the assistant programmes officer for the All Women’s Action Society Malaysia (Awam), when I recount to her the story during a recent meeting to discuss Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which will run until the end of this month.
Worldwide, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to the United Nations. In Malaysia, it is estimated that one in six women would have experienced some form of domestic violence, adds Regina Yau, founder and president of the Pixel Project, a global volunteer-led virtual non-profit organisation working to end violence against women.
The organisation has teamed up with Awam on the Kuala Lumpur leg of their Paint It Purple campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence and raise funds for their respective organisations’ work to help put a stop to it. They recently held a Paint It Purple Cupcake Party to mark the start of the Domestic Violence Awareness month.
WHY IT HAPPENS
“There’s no room for fear in a relationship. When you start feeling afraid of your partner or spouse, then that’s really a clear sign that abuse is taking place,” says Yau, her brows furrowing.
Domestic abuse occurs due to the need to control, to show power and dominance. The perpetrator may feel this need to control their partner for several reasons. It may be due to low self-esteem, jealousy, inability to control anger or feeling that he is inferior to the other partner in education and socio-economic background.
Some men with very traditional beliefs may think that they have the right to control women and that women aren’t equal to men. It could also be due to one’s aggressive nature. Often times, says Joyce Hue, a hypnotherapist who works closely with Awam, it could be due to the perpetrator bringing stress home from work.
She says: “Feeling the need to be dominant, he lashes out at whoever is at home. The use of substance, for example, drugs or alcohol, doesn’t cause domestic abuse but is a stimulant towards it.”
On spotting the early signs of abuse, Yau says: “It often starts with little things. If you can recognise the signs, you can get out early. For example, during your courtship, when the man doesn’t allow you to socialise with your friends and your family, that means he’s taking you away from your support system. He’s isolating you. That’s one sign.”
The other is his continuous control over what you do. “From what you eat to how you dress and who you socialise with. It sneaks up on you,” adds Yau. “There are five elements: Physical, psychological or mental, emotional, sexual, and financial. Financial abuse means that the man usually controls the money in the family. He doles out the money and in extreme cases he won’t allow the woman to go out to work because she might get ideas, or have financial independence. In some cases he would not give money so he can keep her trapped in the house.”
FAMILY THAT SUFFERS
Domestic violence is a structural, cultural, and community problem, even though the word “domestic” may generally denote “something that happens in the home”, adds Milan. “You can’t just look at one man and say that it’s his fault, it’s him that’s perpetuating this. It’s also us when we don’t say “no” to the violence.”
In a family, when a husband is beating up his wife in front of the kids, he’s also effectively traumatising the children, points out Yau who adds: “Secondly, what sort of example are you setting in terms of teaching the kids about healthy relationships and the way men should be treating women? These kids will grow up and have issues. If you’re not careful and you don’t stop the cycle, this learnt behaviour will carry on.”
Hue adds: “It can be very traumatising for the children. They grow up believing that the family is a sacred entity and that there should be love and trust. When they see violence happening right in front of them, they tend to internalise it. Some put the blame on themselves. Young children especially, have not got the mental facility to tell what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Children who witness or are the victims of violence will learn that violence is acceptable and is a reasonable way to resolve conflict between people. Hue says: “Boys will learn that women do not need to be respected and are more likely to abuse women when they grow up. Girls who witness domestic violence in their early years tend to be attracted to the similar kind of figure and are more likely to be victimised by their own husbands.”
What are the signs that a child has been traumatised by what they’ve seen, I ask Hue.
“Some children become withdrawn in school,” she replies. “Some opt to remain mute or develop behavioural problems. You can see a change in the way they act or react with other people. Sometimes, they internalise the issue and hold it back. The problem only manifests itself when they grow up. I’ve seen so many cases where adults come to see me for various problems and it always stems from issues in their childhood.”
But, she says, there are things we can do to help children who have witnessed domestic violence and have been affected by it. “Parents should always talk to their children and reassure them that everything is Ok. In more severe cases, the child should be sent for therapy. Sleep talk, and therapy or play therapy are a few of the techniques that may help. It’s better to ensure that the child grows up healthy before he/ she grows up to become unhealthy adults,” she says.
STOP THE CYCLE
“We need to educate the public from young that it’s wrong to use violence in any way,” stresses Hue. “Currently, we need to instill stronger family bonds and encourage respect and trust in the family. The public shouldn’t turn their back against violence but should instead make reports and help one another.”
Yau chips in: “If you’re abused, don’t stay in that relationship. A lot of women who are in this predicament still love their husbands and they have kids. A lot of them really want their marriage and their family to work. In communities such as ours, where everything is family, breaking up your family is a tough thing to do.”
The period within the first 12 months of leaving is the most dangerous time, warns Milan. “He’s angry because he can’t control you anymore. A lot of women have to hide. It’s scary. There’s love mixed into the fear. But it’s important that you know your legal rights. Most women who call Awam don’t know that they have this option to take out an interim protection order and they can use it against their husband, which means that he can’t come near the woman for a certain period of time while the investigation is going on.”
There are also a lot of places where she can go, she adds. “The Women’s Aid Organisation has a shelter, the YWCA has one. Most shelters will allow you to bring your kids with you especially if they’re still quite young. Awam is here to at least give the women the info that they need, to know what their rights are, what choices they have, what routes they can take, and then they can make their decision.”
As a friend, the best thing you can do for a friend in trouble is to believe her, advises Hue. “Lend an ear or a shoulder for her to cry on. Acknowledge her fear and the courage she took to talk to you. Don’t be judgmental and make decisions for her. Never tell her to leave. Allow her to decide. Just be there to support her. At the end of the day, it’s always best to refer them to professional help. Get your friend to call an NGO or helpline for counselling. NGOs like Awam offer free counselling and also provide some legal aid.”
EVERYBODY’S IN IT
“We need men’s support because it’s not just a woman’s issue,” says Yau. “Every man has a mum, sisters, cousins, and female colleagues. The reason why the Pixel Project has created campaigns like Paint It Purple is because we recognise that it’s a community issue. The best way to get people in isn’t to slam them with pictures of black eyes and make them feel uncomfortable, it’s about getting the whole family in to think and talk about the issue — starting with of all things, cupcakes.
“When you feel happy and comfortable, you can start thinking about the issue. Then you can start wondering about the steps you can take to help the situation. Then, it’s the job of people like us, Awam, WAO, to provide easy access to materials and ideas of how action can be taken. A lot of people want to help but don’t know how. So the Pixel Project is like a first step organisation. We want people to feel empowered so eventually they’ll take steps of their own to help.”
Spend an afternoon Painting It Purple with the Pixel Project, Awam and Bisou Bake Shop on Oct 27 for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Lots of family-friendly activities are planned including learning to decorate your own cupcake at the Cupcake Decorating Workshop with the Academy of Pastry Arts Malaysia. Help raise funds for Awam and the Pixel Project.