When Laura (not her real name) first told her mother that her husband of six months was becoming aggressive, her mother’s reply was short and blunt: she was exaggerating and trying to invent problems.
Fast forward 12 years and Laura considers herself one of the lucky ones who got away, who took the ultimate decision despite a lack of support from her family and despite the outspoken disbelief of friends.
“My ex had always been quick-tempered, but after we got married this side of his character seemed to escalate. He never hurt me enough for me to end up in hospital but he regularly ‘roughed me up’, shoving me hard enough for me to lose balance and fall, for example,” she remembers.
Intimidation was a daily occurrence and required no provocation. She remembers one particular day when the two of them were having a perfectly normal conversation in the kitchen, when suddenly her ex decided that her ‘nattering’ had given him a headache.
“He clouted me on the head. I still remember his taunts. He kept telling me that now I would know what it meant to be given a headache.”
Because the signs were not overly visible, when Laura plucked up the courage to confide in her mother she was met with disbelief and a degree of contempt.
“My ex was very charming and he was very careful to be all amiable smiles in front of my family. My mother told me bluntly that I must be going through a change in life and imagining things.”
Luckily, it did not take Laura too long to summon up enough determination to walk out.
“Not having children to worry about helped. I literally just walked out and went to stay with a sympathetic cousin. Once I left, my ex seemed to lose all his arrogance. He never gave me any more hassle; I think he was embarrassed that I might go public with the reason I left him,” she says.
Other women, sadly, are not as ‘lucky’, if the word can be applied to such a bad situation. They continue to suffer more significant abuse for years before managing to walk away – if they do at all.
“It is extremely difficult to take the first step. Getting to that point means that you’ve already been beaten down with words and threats, made to doubt your sanity, made to feel that it’s all your fault, and convinced that if you do anything about it, you and your children will end up worse,” says Elaine Compagno, service co-ordinator at SOAR, a service run by St Jeanne Antide Foundation that was set up on the steam of a group of survivors.
Many, in fact, end up taking that first step more than once. The obstacles cited are many and range from not wanting to worry elderly parents to lack of economic means; being talked out of leaving or lodging reports by some members of the police force; the total traumatic upheaval that children are put through, such as changing school, leaving friends and belongings behind and, mostly, the risk to safety.
The Gender Based Violence and Domestic Violence law enacted earlier this year introduced a number of positive measures. Yet, many cases still fall through the cracks. Ms Compagno attributes this to a number of causes, such as a lack of awareness of victims’ rights across the board.
Lack of training among front liners remains a problem. Another obstacle is overcoming the victim-blaming culture
“If the prevalence of violence upon women in Malta is one in four, we cannot have a situation where any professional that could potentially work with a victim or her children misses the opportunity to recognise the signs, to ask the right questions and to direct the victim to specialist services.”
Lack of training among front liners remains a problem, she says, adding that these need to be trained on domestic violence, victims’ rights and the measures in the laws that they should be implementing.
“This applies whether a victim goes to the police station or whether the Rapid Intervention Unit is sent to the home, or if she turns up at hospital.”
As an example, Ms Compagno mentions the fact that domestic violence has been an ex-ufficio crime since 2006. This means that the police can proceed against an abuser even without a victim’s complaint.
“But even up to this very week, we still meet survivors who tell us how the police at the station talk them out of lodging a report.
“Thanks to the new law, those lodging a report now have the right to a risk assessment, a measure that could save lives. And yet, something this crucial has not been rolled out properly across all police stations and many still do not know about its existence or the correct procedure to follow,” she claims.
“Imagine a scenario where the report is lodged, but there is no arrest. He is livid. Now what? The fear is real, because as we can clearly see, the risk is real.”
Her words are echoed by Lara Dimitrijevic, director of the Women’s Rights Foundation. She says that although changes to our law were introduced in May, the organisation continues to come across cases where authorities are failing to adhere to their obligations at law.
“In just a span of three months, four women had their lives taken away from them. For this, I contend that as a state we have failed, we failed in preventing their death, we failed in protecting them and only now that they are dead we are dealing with their murderer’s prosecution. Unacceptable.”
Another obstacle is overcoming the victim-blaming culture, which Ms Compagno describes as an “easy way out of an uncomfortable discussion”.
“It is one of the greatest social ills in a patriarchal country that is rife with rape culture. Instead of asking why did she stay, why did she pick him, why didn’t she leave, or why did she go back, we really should be asking: why is he doing that to a person he supposedly loves? Why are so many men all over the world violent? What makes a man kill his whole family and then himself? These are the questions that matter,” she insists.
Victim-blaming traps a victim deeper into the problem, increasing the shame related to her experience and disempowering her from reaching out. It is a problem that is closely tied to the idea of stigma, and that domestic abuse only happens to ‘a certain kind of people’.
Referring to racial comments that surfaced on social media in the aftermath to the recent murder of 35-year-old Marie-Lourdes Agius (her Ivorian partner has since been arraigned), both Dr Dimitrijevic and Ms Compagno agree that domestic violence does not discriminate between class, race and age.
“Women are disproportionately more often victims, and men are disproportionately more often perpetrators. What is really linked to domestic violence is power, attitude and core beliefs. It is about a sense of entitlement to be dominant, possessive and controlling over their partner. At SOAR we have supported close to 400 women and the absolute majority of perpetrators are Maltese partners and husbands,” Ms Compagno says.
Francesca Fenech Conti, co-founder of the Women for Women page on Facebook, agrees. She, too, is the first port of call for many women who find themselves in a situation of abuse.
“The problem is much more common than I ever imagined. I get on average one message about domestic violence a day,” she says.
Asked whether the public is guilty of turning a blind eye, Ms Fenech Conti says that it tends to be more an issue of not wanting to make things worse for the victim.
“Remember there’s violence involved, and people might be scared. I don’t blame them; look what had happened to Sylvia King,” she says, referring to the horrific 1993 murder of a woman by her friend’s husband. King was trying to help her friend escape a situation of domestic abuse.
“It should be the police that ensure the person’s safety. Even in the case of anonymous reports, these should be taken very seriously.”
And, rather than removing the stigma, it is essential that we remove the shame and guilt often associated with the issue.
“All this comes from victim blaming. We are a society that is so good at this, as can be easily seen from comments on the social media. How often do we read comments like ‘she had it coming’; or ‘she should have walked out’; ‘she provoked him’? Why don’t we ask why did he do that to her? Why don’t we question the decision of the aggressor?” Dr Dimitrijevic concludes.
How society can help tackle the problem
While removing the stigma for the victim is always a good thing, Ms Compagno says this does not mean that a good part of the solution lies in the lap of the victim. She lists the following points of action that need to be addressed by society and by lawmakers and law-enforcers, in order that the problem may start being tackled effectively:
Not a private problem: A big part of the solution is to make domestic violence everyone’s business. There is no place for abusers in our community, on our sports team and in our clubs.
Men can set an example: While it is true that most perpetrators are men, most men are not perpetrators. Men and boys are a very important part of the solution. Men are leaders by example; many younger men and boys look up to their fathers, grandfathers, coaches, teachers and community leaders.
Accountability: It’s not okay for a victim to go through all that terror, to put herself through all that hardship, only to go to court and watch her abuser get off scot-free. It sends the message that domestic violence is not a serious crime and that perpetrators can go on abusing with impunity.
SOAR – https://www.antidemalta.org/
The Marceline Foundation – www.themarcyfoundation.com
Dar Merħba Bik – www.darmerhbabik.org
Victim Support Malta helpline - 179
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