Domestic abuse occurs when one person in a married or other close relationship tries to dominate and control the other person. Abuse that includes physical violence is called domestic violence. When people think of domestic abuse, they normally picture battered women who have been physically assaulted. But not all abusive relationships involve violence. Many men and women suffer from emotional abuse, which is no less destructive.

Domestic violence occurs for only one purpose: to gain and maintain total control over the person being abused. It does not discriminate between economic or educational background, age, ethnicity or sex, although in Malta with our macho male culture and Mediterranean temperament the larger incidence of reported domestic violence appears to involve men.

Last year, the police received 1,048 reports of domestic violence, compared with 1,024 in 2013. About 778 cases were taken before the family court in 2013 and 784 in 2014. The domestic violence law, enacted nine years ago, offered courts the possibility of issuing a treatment order for domestic abuse perpetrators. This treatment would help them become accountable for their actions, to learn to understand their behaviour and to take control.

However, in almost a decade the courts have never invoked this legal tool which would compel male abusers to seek help from the government’s social agency, Appoġġ. According to experts at Appoġġ, a domestic violence treatment order was issued about a month ago, but it was technically deficient and could not be pursued.

Professor Liz Kelly of London Metropolitan University was recently in Malta following the murder trial of Silvana Muscat (who had filed three domestic violence reports before her death) to deliver a lecture to Appoġġ. She had spearheaded a research project in the UK into domestic violence perpetrator programmes. The research had examined the value and quality of such programmes and shadowed 100 women from the time the men had attended the 26- to 30-week treatment programmes through to 12 months after the programme ended.

For the vast majority, Prof. Kelly reported, sexual violence had stopped but the controlling behaviour continued. But “by the end of the programme, the men also learnt to have a wider understanding of violence because the programme had challenged them to see that stamping, shouting and having the last word were also forms of control, power and intimidation.”

There are a number of broad lessons to emerge from Silvana Muscat’s murder, the abysmal failure of the courts to issue any treatment orders against male domestic violence perpetrators and Prof. Kelly’s advice in the course of her lecture.

The first is that there needs to be a societal change of attitude. The courts reflect society as well as lead it. The lack of court-mandated treatment orders may well be a reflection of a cultural state of mind about women in domestic violence situations which needs changing.

Secondly, there should be wider awareness in society in general to the first signs of domestic abuse. These are not initially signalled by physical violence but often follow emotional and psychological pressures – yelling, name-calling, shaming and belittling behaviour. Domestic abuse often escalates from threats and verbal abuse to violence. Everybody in society should take a stand and denounce such behaviour.

Domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone, yet the problem is often overlooked, wrongly excused or denied. This is especially true when the abuse is psychological, rather than physical. Noticing and acknowledging the first signs of an abusive relationship is the first step to ending it.