Violence Against Women International
Foundation Violence Agains Women International is a non profit organization working as speciaL consultative status with United Nations.
International Day to End Violence against Women
25 November 2013
Estudio multipaís de la OMS sobre salud de la mujer y la violencia doméstica : primeros resultados sobre prevalencia, eventos relativos a la salud y respuestas de las mujeres a dicha violencia : resumen del informe
“When we came across these searches, we were shocked by how negative they were and decided we had to do something with them,” says Christopher Hunt, Art Director of the creative team. The idea developed places the text of the Google searches over the mouths of women portraits, as if to silence their voices.
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(5) Domestic Violence
A framework for understanding
An appreciation of the overall effects of domestic violence and a way of understanding the sort of support needed by those who experience it can be gained by considering them in relation to Maslow’s ideas on human needs, first published in 1954. As a psychologist, Maslow saw human need, not simply as the requirement for food, water, shelter and clothing in order to maintain existence, but as a deeper drive within individuals to create for themselves an adequate and fulfilling life and to reach out for those elements which they felt were lacking in their present circumstances. He argued that people have higher needs and aspirations. Once the basic physiological needs for survival had been at least partially met, they would want to reach beyond these to achieve some measure of safety and freedom from fear, to belong, to connect to others and be accepted by them, to experience feelings of self-worth and self-esteem and to develop their own ideals and abilities. He saw individuals as actively seeking to meet their needs as they perceived them and to care for themselves in whatever way they felt was appropriate: for example, that they would seek safety before looking for the esteem of others. He also argued that the innate ability to do this might be limited by the social and economic circumstances in which they lived and their past and current experiences, which had the capacity to damage or block their capability of taking action.
Interpreting these ideas in terms of the effects of domestic violence, the experiences of the women in this study show that the physical and, in particular, the mental abuse they had suffered, with its uncertainty and the unpredictability of its occurrences, had removed any sense of physical or mental safety and security. The feelings of fear and shame that this induced deterred women from confiding in those around them and this isolation from others was further reinforced by mechanisms of control and coercion. Over time, they had lost confidence in themselves and their sense of worth and self-esteem, accepting the value placed upon them by their abuser and losing their own aspirations. This in turn reinforced isolation and fear, leaving women with only the basic drive to survive and maintain life for themselves and their children. Yet, at the same time, they were taking positive action, as Maslow envisaged, caring for themselves, as far as they could, in terms of safety and, where it could be done without increasing the risk to themselves or others, reaching out and making connections. Safety was also an important consideration in deciding to leave or stay in the relationship. For many women, leaving may be the more dangerous option. They expressed considerable fears as to what would happen if they were located by their abuser. ‘If he finds me, I’m dead ‘was one blunt and probably realistic assessment of the situation, bearing in mind that official statistics show that two women a week are killed by partners or former partners, a figure which has not altered for more than a decade. Research also suggests that women may be at the greatest risk of harm when they are seeking help, or are at the point of leaving the relationship.
Seeing the effects of domestic violence in this way may make it easier to appreciate the extent and the interlinked nature of the difficulties that a woman who experiences domestic violence has to contend with and the factors which may influence her choices and decision-making processes. In terms of Maslow’s ideas, effective support for women who experience domestic violence needs to recognise and reinforce their own ability to take action. It needs to establish a sense of a physically and mentally safe space, to provide a supportive environment where a woman can feel believed and accepted by others and to work with her to rebuild the confidence and self-esteem which will enable her to regain autonomy and control over her life. Support also needs to be reliable and consistent, to avoid increasing any feelings of isolation, or of not being ‘worthy’ of support and may be needed over a considerable period of time. A recent study of a number of intervention projects by Hester and Westmarland has shown that these are all the factors most valued by service users and seen by workers as most effective in offering successful support.
This support may come from a variety of sources: from community projects such as ‘one-stop-shops’; the outreach and support services run by refuge groups and other voluntary organizations; and from advocacy and health initiatives. National and local help lines also have an important role to play both in providing immediate contact and in putting women in touch with other sources of help. Support need not be seen as limited only to specific organizations. It can be crucially important when offered by individuals who may come in contact with the woman or her family in a variety of settings, including education, employment and health. Nor does it need an official position – the everyday contacts which women made with others – at the school gates, for example – were valued as sources of support and ‘normality’.
Post traumatic stress disorder
Research has shown clear links between women’s experience of domestic abuse and a range of mental health problems, including depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) self-harming behaviours and suicidality. PTSD was originally seen as a consequence of the experiences of combat troops, but has now been recognised as affecting hostages and the victims and witnesses of major disasters. It has also, thanks to the efforts of feminists working professionally in the mental health field, been extended to include individuals who experience rape and sexual abuse as adults or children and those who experience domestic violence, where the long-term nature of much of this abuse makes it more complex and traumatic than a single incident. It is the parallel with the hostage scenario that is particularly relevant to women who experience domestic violence, since they, like hostages, exist in a situation where unpredictable events remove any sense of physical and mental safety. They are isolated from any source of contact except the hostage taker or takers and lose confidence in themselves, their own identity and sense of self-worth, seeking only to survive the experience. Guidance on supporting recovery from PTSD stresses that the first consideration must be the establishment of physical and mental safety in a supportive atmosphere, the rebuilding of self-esteem and autonomy, and links to family, friends, community and wider society.
The advantage of a diagnosis of PTSD is that it directly links domestic violence with its effects on mental health and emotional well-being and can enable a woman to access professional help, including appropriate medication, without feeling that she is, in some respect, personally deficient, inferior or inadequate, as might be the case with a diagnosis such as ‘borderline personality disorder’. However, it can be seen as continuing to pathologise women, focusing on ‘the woman’ and ‘her problem’ rather than taking account of the situation that has caused it, the controlling nature of the abuse and the circumstances in which she may have to continue to live. Diagnoses of this nature are made by mental health professionals, and as Dutton and Whalen have pointed out, the power for recovery may then be seen to lie with the professional counselor or psychotherapist and become medicalised, rather than rest with the individual woman and the sources of support that she chooses. For the woman herself and those around her, such a diagnosis can be seen as a stigma. It may disadvantage her in dealing with potential employers and with professional and statutory bodies. This may also be the case, as Humphreys and Thiara point out, within the legal system, in matters such as child contact cases or residence orders. Although a diagnosis of PTSD can be extremely valuable in enabling the comparatively small number of women who require or can access it, to obtain specialist help, it would seem to be inappropriate as a blanket diagnosis for all women who experience domestic violence. The women who talked to me were well aware of the immense effect that psychological abuse had had on them and were concerned about the problems that this created for them in their efforts to move on. All of them displayed, to a greater or lesser degree, symptoms associated with PTSD, but none of them saw themselves as needing to access professional mental health services or specialist trauma interventions. To see their experiences in terms of Maslow’s ideas, however, provides an alternative approach which mirrors the concepts involved in the diagnosis and treatment associated with PTSD, but can be seen as more appropriate for the majority of women who experience domestic violence. It removes any concept of stigma, pathology or ‘victim blaming’ and conveys a positive and accurate image of women actively striving to overcome difficult personal circumstances, enduring social and economic disadvantage and reacting in an understandable way to what they have been through. This approach both recognises the important role of networks and communities in recovery and adds a spiritual dimension in recognising the importance of higher values and personal development in contributing to the emotional well-being of the individual.
Loss and grief
As the previous sections have shown, domestic violence imposes emotional, physical, social and economic losses on those who experience it: loss of a sense of safety and security, trust in the world around them, personal identity and self-worth, perhaps of physical as well as emotional health, possessions, jobs, friends, family and community. Women saw these losses as having taken place gradually, almost imperceptibly, over the period of a relationship with someone for whom they had had, and often still had, feelings of love and who, at some time, had expressed similar feelings towards them. For those who take the difficult decision to leave the relationship for good, or who are forced to leave, whether they initially go to a refuge or not, there will be further significant and long-term emotional and material losses to face, which may play a crucial role in any decision-making process. This will include the relationship itself, where there may be feelings of shame and guilt, of love as well as fear and the loss of someone who has been the dominant figure in her life and played a major role in shaping her existence.
Leaving may also involve the loss of older children who are already living independently, or those who had to be left behind, of family, friends, any remaining support network, however small, pets, income from a job, or from their partner’s employment. It is also likely to include the loss of a home which they had struggled hard to build up and keep together, often in the face of recurrent destruction of fabric and furniture by the abuser. The significance and impact of these multiple losses has been recognized by many other researchers in this field. For all the women who talked to me, there was the loss of a familiar environment - one which they knew and understood however risky it had become. Many of them had travelled long distances to reach a refuge, either for reasons of safety, or to where there was accommodation available. For them this meant tearing up their roots and losing their own culture and way of life: I cried all the way till when I got here… I knew I was crossing the county and I knew I wasn’t going back there and it was…I don’t know, I don’t know how I felt, I just knew I were upset anyway. I were devastated because I was coming so far away from home and I wasn’t going back and the kids weren’t going back. (Val - victim)
It can be difficult to comprehend the experience of loss on this scale. Women spoke of the need for time and space to take in all that had happened to them, to grieve for their losses and come to terms with their present situation. In listening to their stories, it became apparent to me that the pattern of recovery and rebuilding that they were going through mirrored, in its essentials, the pattern of loss, transition and recovery following bereavement. A number of versions of these progressions have been put forward, but it can broadly be summarized as consisting of three fluid and interlinked phases:
1. An initial impact with feelings of intense shock, numbness, unreality and disbelief.
2. A transition period involving recognition of what has happened, a period of mourning, disorganization and adjustment, with feelings of anger, loss, depression, lack of confidence and intense waves of emotional feeling, often unexpected and uncontrollable.
3. A time of reorganization, recovery, implementing change and building a new way of life.
I have adopted the terms Reception, Recognition and Reinvestment to describe these three phases, as these seemed to me the words which best encapsulated the process occurring within and beyond the refuge setting for each woman. For some of them, a changed understanding of themselves and their role in society and a desire to develop their own abilities took place, during either the phase of Recognition or of Reinvestment. This could be identified in terms of Maslow’s concept of self-actualization and I have described this as Realignment. In discussing the way an individual is likely to move through the phases of bereavement, Worden identified a number of tasks associated with the process, which both assist in coming to terms with the changed situation and require positive action on the part of the individual. The majority of these are emotional tasks: accepting what has happened; mourning the losses; adjusting to a new environment; and dealing with feelings about the person who has died. At the same time there are new and difficult practical issues that have to be faced: realizing that the world has changed; taking on unfamiliar tasks and new roles; dealing with financial and social problems; and seeking a new identity and relationships. Just as in bereavement, these two strands (the emotional and the practical) run in parallel for women leaving an abusive relationship. There is a danger, however, that whereas in bereavement, as Stroebe and Schut point out, the difficulties and stresses of the practical problems may be overlooked, for women who experience domestic violence it is the practical aspects that become emphasized and the parallel and equal need for emotional support can be overlooked. Research and practice in working with bereaved people emphasizes that these phases and tasks are not consecutive and boundaried. They represent a fluid and dynamic process of coping, which will be different in duration and support needs for each person within the context of their personal circumstances. The process will also be affected by any additional traumatic factors involved, as might be the case with murder, the death of a child, suicide, or accident. For women who have experienced domestic violence, it is the effects of abuse, which make it more difficult to move forward – fears over personal safety, the availability of support and the loss of confidence, self-esteem and self-worth. Emotional support, therefore, needs to be directed at meeting these needs, in addition to understanding and working with the grief caused by the losses women have sustained and the practical tasks involved in moving on with their lives. As with bereavement, the rebuilding of their lives is not a speedy or straightforward process. Women are likely to experience numerous periods when they return to their earlier feelings of sadness, confusion and self-doubt, as well as times when they are able to act with immense confidence and courage.
Loss, trauma and recovery
Unlike grieving after bereavement, which today is generally seen as a normal and socially acceptable process, domestic violence is still largely a taboo and stigmatized subject. Despite the efforts of campaigners over the past two decades and the positive approach of government, women are likely to be held back from disclosure by feelings of shame and guilt, particularly as they may be uncertain of the reaction they will get from family and friends, or from any agencies they may contact. Seeing the effects of domestic violence in terms of Maslow’s ideas on human need can make it easier to understand why it can be difficult to reach out for support, or to decide to leave the relationship and why community support is of such importance.
For those who take the difficult decision to leave, there are major material and emotional problems to overcome. Placing these in the context of recovery from bereavement, made more traumatic and complex by the effects of domestic violence, can enable women to see their feelings as normal and understandable, given what they have been through, to locate themselves in a process with an ending and see that they are capable of acting to change things. The framework of understanding provided by these two perspectives can be utilized by agencies and organizations to understand why women may choose to return to, or remain in, the relationship, the emotional and the practical difficulties that have to be faced in staying or leaving and to provide effective and flexible support.
Domestic violence can be physical, psychological, sexual, financial or emotional and these elements will often combine and reinforce each other. It normally follows a pattern of repeating and escalating incidents, whose unpredictability produces a state of constant fear and anxiety in those who experience it.
The majority of incidents are perpetrated by men against women with whom they have, or have had, an intimate relationship.
Violence and abuse may also occur within same-sex relationships, be carried out by women against male partners or former partners, or take place between members of the extended family.
Although physical and sexual violence can cause permanent damage to health, women found that the mental impact of these acts and the emotional abuse of ‘mind games’, coercive control and manipulation were both harder to endure and more difficult to explain to others.
Constant denigration and criticism had led to the loss of self-esteem, confidence and any sense of self-worth, while controlling and possessive behaviors had isolated them from family, friends and other potential sources of support.
Women did not see themselves as powerless or passive within these situations. They took positive action to defuse tension and protect themselves and their children and utilized any opportunities that offered to maintain contact with others.
Using Maslow’s concept of human needs offers a framework for understanding the effects of domestic violence and for effective support giving. It recognizes the positive agency of the woman herself, her own capability to take action and her drive to improve the quality of her life, together with the importance of physical and mental safety and a supportive community.
A diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can offer a way for women who need it to access specialist medical intervention, but may be inappropriate for the majority of women who experience domestic violence and may have adverse consequences in dealing with statutory bodies and other agencies.
Women who leave an abusive relationship experience loss on material, emotional and personal levels. The process of recovery from these multiple losses is similar to that following bereavement, with fluid and overlapping phases spanning initial impact, transition and reintegration. The process of recovery is made more complex and difficult by the way in which domestic violence has damaged confidence, self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Support needs to work with these feelings as well as the difficulties created by the practical and emotional losses entailed in leaving the relationship. For women who experience domestic violence, whether they are in an abusive relationship or have left, support needs to be reliable and consistent, in order to rebuild confidence and trust and a sense that they are worthy of support. This support may need to be accessible on a long-term basis. Any support activity must prioritize physical and mental safety and work with the woman to rebuild her confidence and enable her to take control of her life. Emotional support is as important as practical assistance. Support should not be seen as limited to statutory and voluntary organizations, since individual and community support represent an important resource in recovery.
(6) Domestic Violence
Making the decision to leave an abusive relationship is not a simple or easy choice. It involves considerations of risk and safety (is it more dangerous to stay or to go?), the availability of resources and support and a balance between losses and gains, made more difficult by the destructive effect that domestic violence has had on confidence and self-esteem. Some women may see leaving as a purely temporary measure, either to give themselves a brief respite before returning to the situation, or in the hope of shocking the abuser into a realization of what is happening. Others may not have finally reached the conclusion that their relationship has ended and may well need to go through the process of leaving and returning to the relationship a number of times, in the hope of making it work, before they are ready to finally move on, assuming the hoped for changes in their partner’s behavior do not take place. In all of these situations, the process of leaving may increase a woman’s confidence in her ability to manage alone and provide time both to reflect on the relationship and to consider her own needs.
For 15 of the women who talked to me, this was their first visit to a refuge, although it was clear that a number of them had left the abusive situation previously, staying with friends or relatives and then returning to the relationship.
Others had been in refuges before; six had made between two and three visits, one counted five visits and one woman thought she had been in at least seven. This group said that at each time of leaving they had regarded it as a final break, but had gone back for a variety of reasons, including the belief that the situation had changed or would change, and the financial and social difficulties which they saw as facing them. All of the women in the study were emphatic that their current decision to leave was final, but it is possible that one or more of them may have returned to the relationship at a later date.
Taking the decision
So why had they left now? Women commented that there had been a clear moment when they realized that they had to leave. For some of them, it had been the culmination of the leaving and returning process - a point at which they realized that things just couldn’t go on in this way any longer: A lot of people don’t have the family or friends to maybe use all the time, so maybe do go to a refuge and then go back and then go back again. But it does take, I think, one certain incident and one certain thing and when you just think…that’s gone too far, or that’s been too much or…you know, he’s hurt me too much, or whatever it might be. And then you do realize, even though you have known, probably, for years, that it’s never going to work.
That you actually have to say well, no, that’s it, I…whatever it might be, I can’t take any more. (Jenny). For others, like Stacey, it was the fear of imminent death that had given them the emotional strength to leave: ‘The situation got so severe, I just thought my life was in extreme danger.’ In other instances, the final driving force was anger. Janet decided ‘enough was enough’. Amy was more specific: ‘I thought, right, there’s no way you’re ever going to do this again.’ For her, as for other women in their thirties, there was also a realization that there must be more to life and that they were losing out on the chance of discovering their own potential. ‘I actually walked away this time for myself. I just felt there was nothing in life for me, anymore, hardly.’ Amalie agreed. ‘I mean, I haven’t had a life for the last 18 years. I’ve just had a beating, one long beating. And…now it’s my turn. I mean, I want a life. And I’m sick to death of dancing to his tune.’ A small group of women had had the decision to leave taken out of their hands, either because their partner had (yet again) thrown them out and they had decided not to go back, or they had come to the refuge to ensure their own safety straight from the hospital, or from court proceedings. Some of these women had now left the refuge and were living independently. The others felt that the action had helped them to make the break and they were unlikely to return.
Filling the information gap
One of the biggest obstacles to leaving was the lack of information, mainly due to the isolation from any social contact which had been imposed on them by their abuser. This situation was made more difficult for those living in rural areas by restricted public transport services and lack of easy access to facilities such as doctors’ surgeries or advice centers, where this information might have been available. The majority of those for whom this had been their first stay in a refuge had had no idea, to begin with, that refuges or support services which might help them existed: I had no idea that there were any women’s refuges around, anywhere. I’d never seen one, never spoken to anyone who had been to one, didn’t know what I was going to do when I had to leave home. I just spoke to my social worker, I said, I’m leaving, I don’t know where I’m going. I could envisage myself sitting out on a bench somewhere…you know, not knowing what I was going to do. I had no money, nothing, in a terrible state of trauma. (Rachel)
Sometimes, as in Rachel’s situation, the link was made by a social worker. Other sources of information had been the police, notices in GP surgeries, or clinics and, more unexpectedly, an assistant in a shoe shop who produced a phone book and looked up a helpline number. National and local help lines had often been the first step towards seeking help and the support they had given to women in considering their options, making the decision to leave and finding a refuge, was remembered with appreciation:
Knowing that there is actually somebody there to help you. It is hard to make that first call. It really is and…and I think the people who are on the phone, mostly, I think, are the most important people. Because, if you can’t talk and feel trusted with them on the phone, you’re not going to come to a refuge. And when I phoned the national line, they were brilliant. I could have broken down and cried and it was like… [great sigh]…somebody’s actually listening to me. The helpline was great. Absolutely. (Liz)
The idea that someone had listened to them and believed what they said, without judging or criticizing, had helped to boost confidence, name what was happening to them as domestic violence and recognize that it was not acceptable. Similar comments were made about advice centers. This ‘giving permission’, both to name the violence and that it was not inevitable had been of immense importance to Stacey: ‘I said to her, well, I just can’t take any more. And she says, well, you don’t have to. There’s a place where you can go. That’s where it all started.’
Women felt that had this information been more readily available to them, they might perhaps have taken action earlier. As Helga told me: ‘I went through this for so many years, thinking I could either get beaten to death in a warm house or freeze to death on the street, with nowhere else to go.’ They were very clear that far more publicity and information needed to be made available, although unsure as to how best this could be done. As Charmian said: ‘Women are going through hell out there and they need to be told that there is somewhere they can get help.’
Making the break
It’s not as if…it isn’t easy, you know. Anybody who thinks, oh well, all we’ve got to do is just, sort of, walk out the door and just get a train, or whatever, and just sort of toddle into a refuge, you know. And it just isn’t like that; it isn’t easy like that at all. Its one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. You know, because you just leave everything. (Barbara)
For all of the women, leaving had been an ordeal in itself, whether it was for the first time, or one of several such occasions. Some of them, having made the decision to leave, were given help by the police or, like Rachel, by a social worker.
Three who had found their own way to a refuge had made a spur of the moment decision – ‘just got up and run, that’s what I did’ said Charlene. Others had thought and planned meticulously, ringing the refuge until there was a vacancy, noting transport times, deciding who and what to tell and whether to involve other members of the family, working out what to say to their children and how to carry out their plans. One woman persuaded her husband to drive her and her suitcase to one of her older children for a ‘short holiday’, from where she contacted the refuge network. For others, there was a narrow ‘window of opportunity’ in which to bring all their planning together and make their escape, before their resolve failed: He went off to work and it was just one mad panic. I knew, if I didn’t go that night, I wouldn’t do it, I just wouldn’t do it. And so, technically, yes, it was planned and I had support and back-up from me, family. But if I hadn’t, I’d never have gone. If I didn’t…if I hadn’t said, right, I’m going on that Sunday night, when he’d gone off to work, I wouldn’t have done it. I couldn’t get anything [together]. It was like; you thought this, oh, right. And that was going on all day. I’ve arranged to go on Sunday, so I’ll just pack a few suitcases! Do you know? You can’t do that! Because, if he’d found out, I wouldn’t have been able to leave. So, when he went off to work on that Sunday morning, it was just a mad panic. QUICK! NOW! And we were putting things in bags and we just left. We just left. (Stacey) Women arrived at their destinations emotionally and physically exhausted by the effort of leaving, with only what they could carry or put in a car, or, in many instances, with nothing at all.
Arriving at the refuge
The prevalent emotion on arriving, either for the first time or on a subsequent occasion, was fear, amounting in many cases to absolute terror. Some said they had felt physically sick. Not only was there the immediate fear that they might be found by their abuser and the possible consequences of that, but also the fear of the alien environment they were going to. Women were shocked by the fact that they had come to a refuge and uncertain as to whether they would be able to trust the other residents or, indeed, the workers. As Cathy, one of the refuge volunteers who had also experienced domestic violence, pointed out, having lived in an atmosphere of fear, isolation, and uncertainty for so long such doubts were understandable: You don’t know whether to trust these women or not. You don’t know them, see, they’re all strangers. And you don’t know if they’re trying to pull information out of you and on to Social, to tell them.
Additionally, there were concerns and fears around all they had lost and as to how they were going to manage with no food, no money, and no belongings. For some, there were more long-term concerns about the future and the future of their children. This last was a particular concern for Asian women, where a child’s marriage prospects might be seen to be affected by the woman’s actions.
Coupled with fear was a general feeling of being so numbed, dazed and mentally confused by their experiences, that it was difficult to take anything in You feel like you’re absolutely shell-shocked. I just could not, for days and days get my head round the fact that I was actually here. The whole thing is very strange and very weird and very, very surreal. Like being in a Ken Russell film or something, you know, floating through it. (Barbara) I think, looking back on it now, the first eight weeks, I just walked round in a daze. You know, I was doing things, getting the kids in school, but, it just didn’t seem… I can’t explain it, it was a horrible feeling. (Amy) My head was in bits and I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. (Leanne)
These feelings of confusion and distress, similar to those which are generally experienced immediately after bereavement, have also been recognized in other research.
Given the intensity of these feelings, the way in which the arrival at the refuge was managed was extremely important in helping women to settle down and feel comfortable, after the immense effort they had made to escape. Their immediate needs varied according to their situation. So, for Shelley, arriving with only the clothes she stood up in and having had to leave her children behind, the first need was for space and time to express her feelings. ‘I couldn’t stop crying or anything. They let me talk to them for hours, do you know what I mean? To get everything off your chest and that.’ Where a move had been planned, even if executed in haste, it seemed easier to get straight into settling in: Katja [worker] met me and we went into the living room and she introduced herself and we sat talking and she took all me details and things and what had happened and explained things to me very thoroughly. What was expected and what I was expected to do and what they would do and stuff. And then she showed me to my room and stuff. (Stacey) For all the new arrivals, the prime factors at this time were not feeling rushed, being listened to, believed and treated with respect as an individual who had been through a difficult and traumatic experience. Small welcoming gestures – a hug, being given a mug of tea – were vividly remembered months, even years, after they had occurred. ‘Beautiful,’ said Maryam. ‘It was wicked.’
All the refuges maintained a limited stock of non-perishable food which could be made available to women and children to start them off and would loan small sums of money until other finance became available. At one refuge, the local branch of the Mother’s Union provided a Welcome Box of toiletries and other essentials for any new arrivals, a small luxury which made a big difference. At another, the Welcome Pack for children included some new, age-appropriate toys which were theirs to keep.
AFRICA: THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM AND THE PROBLEM OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN WEST AFRICA
Domestic violence is a form of aggression perpetrated by a family member or an intimate partner, usually male, on another family member or partner, usually female. According to Amnesty International, domestic violence is a problem the world over and affects one in every three women; this translates into approximately one billion women who have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in their lifetime. This problem is particularly pernicious in Africa, where both international and regional human rights and gender-sensitive documents have not been implemented by the governments of the various countries. This text examines how the criminal justice systems in West African countries respond to the problem of domestic violence in the subregion.
Laws are made by legislatures and enforced by the police, and when violators are arrested, the courts interpret the law and assign punishment accordingly. It follows, then, that before the police and subsequently the courts can get involved in the problem of domestic violence, the law must prohibit this behavior. However, among West African countries, only Mauritania has specific domestic violence legislation in place. Article 297 of the Senegalese Penal Code, amended in 1999, punishes violence against women by imprisonment of one to five years (Center for Reproductive Law and Policy). Ghana and Nigeria both have draft legislations designed to make domestic violence illegal in their countries. As of this writing, the rest of the countries in West Africa have yet to draft domestic violence legislations. Without specific domestic violence legislation which prescribes the responsibilities of the officials of the criminal justice system, the victims will continue to suffer. By the same token, the constitutions and sometimes civil laws of the various West African countries guarantee equality before the law and forbid discrimination based on sex, race, religion, class, ethnicity, or language; despite this, women continue to experience extensive societal discrimination, especially in rural areas, where women generally are confined to traditional roles. For example, though the Ghanaian Parliament banned the practice of customary servitude (known as Trokosi) in 1998, the practice still goes on. Also, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in many West African countries (including Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Togo), but the practice continues and prosecutions are few. Further, despite the 1985 Agrarian and Land Reform Legislation in Burkina Faso-which established equality between men and women and granted women the right to own land-in practice, women in this country are still denied this right (Center for Reproductive Law and Policy).
Commitment on the part of the governments of the various countries to enforcing the provisions of the constitutions and, in some cases, civil laws of their respective countries would stem the tide of domestic violence within the West African sub-region. Such commitment would include providing funds for gender-sensitive training of criminal justice officials and outlining the responsibilities of each part of the criminal justice system. Further, it has been charged that some laws in West African countries are narrow and in some instances ambiguous, and as a result, are confusing to even criminal justice officials. For example, rape laws in Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone provide a narrow definition of the crime of rape that requires penetration of the vagina by a man’s penis for the elements of the crime to be complete (Advocates for Youth; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch). Acts of forced oral or anal sex or penetration by foreign objects are not considered rape. According to Human Rights Watch, this discrepancy in rape laws is worse in Sierra Leone, where the law holds that unlawful carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of 16 is a felony but unlawful carnal knowledge of a 13-year-old girl, whether with or without her consent, is a misdemeanor. To be classified as a crime, in either case, the victim must be a virgin, because forced sexual intercourse with a nonvirgin in Sierra Leone is not considered rape. Similar confusion exists in Senegal, where the rape of a person over the age of 16 is a felony but the rape of younger girls is misconstrued by the police and the judiciary as unlawful carnal knowledge, which makes the act a misdemeanor. To improve the handling of domestic violence by the criminal justice system, any inherent confusion in the law as well as narrow definitions of the crime of rape must be given attention. In evaluating how the criminal justice system handles the problem of domestic violence in West Africa, it is necessary to note that several statutes in many West African countries discriminate against women. For example, in Cameroon, civil law allows a husband to oppose his wife’s right to work in a separate profession if the protest is made in the interest of the family. Also, while Cameroonian law gives a woman the freedom to organize her own business, it allows her husband to end such commercial activity by notifying the clerk of the commerce tribunal of his opposition. These laws, in effect, subjugate women to the authority of men. In addition, the law in many West African countries either tolerates marital rape or does not recognize it as a crime. In Cameroon, for example, marital rape is recognized as an offense under statutory law but tolerated under the customary law because it is culturally accepted that consent to marriage constitutes unlimited consent to sexual intercourse. The law permits men in West Africa to have two or more wives simultaneously but does not allow polyandry. Spousal abuse is not a legal and sufficient ground for divorce (Gambia is an exception).
Further, the law in some countries even permits husbands to beat their wives (New York University School of Law). In Nigeria, for example, the Penal Code permits husbands to ‘‘correct’’ their wives as long as such ‘‘correction’’ does not result in grievous harm, which is defined as loss of sight, hearing, power of speech, facial disfigurement, or other life-endangering injuries (Women’s International Network). Under this type of legal discrimination, it should not be surprising that the police in Nigeria as well as within the sub region do not intervene in ‘‘family affairs’’ except in the case of serious bodily harm or murder.
The law also discriminates against women in the manner in which it punishes people who assault others. For example, the Criminal Code for Southern Nigeria prescribes different sentences for the crime of assault depending on whether the victim of the attack is a man or a woman. Whereas assault on a man is a felony and carries a prison term of three years, assault on a woman is a misdemeanor and carries a prison term of two years. Also, Section 361 of the Penal Code in Cameroon criminalizes adultery, but the provisions differ depending upon whether the adulterer is the wife or the husband. The law holds that ‘‘any married woman having sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband shall be punished’’ and that ‘‘any married man having sexual intercourse in the matrimonial home or habitually having sexual intercourse elsewhere, with a woman other than his wife or wives, shall be punished’’ (International Women’s Rights Action Watch ). In effect, for a man to be punished for adultery, the act must either take place in the matrimonial home or be habitual. But, in the case of a woman, all acts of adultery are criminal. Also, nationality laws in Liberia and Nigeria allow men from these countries to transmit their nationality to their children wherever they are born and whoever their mothers are. Women, on the other hand, are not given the same privilege (International Women’s Rights Action Watch). Furthermore, immigration rules in Nigeria require that a married adult woman wishing to obtain an international passport must secure her husband’s endorsement before such a passport can be issued to her and if she wants the children to be endorsed on her passport that she presents their father’s written consent. Rules of this nature make the intervention of the criminal justice system in cases of domestic violence problematic. Additionally, whereas divorce is a permissible option under the marriage and divorce laws of West African countries, it tends to be treated as a male prerogative. A woman cannot be granted the divorce on the ground of adultery or abuse alone; she must accompany either claim with cruelty and/or desertion. Men, on the other hand, can divorce their wives without any verifiable justification. In effect, women can easily be divorced but not seek the divorce. So, when the spirit and/or the letter of the law clearly discriminate against women, there is very little that criminal justice officials can do to fight domestic violence.
Criminal justice officials in various countries in West Africa have been accused of maintaining a dismissive, unsympathetic, or nonchalant attitude toward the problem of domestic violence within the sub-region. Human Rights Watch has charged that the police do not see domestic abuse as a ‘‘real’’ crime but as a family matter in which the state has no right to intervene (AFROL News). Court officials are said to be complacent in dealing with victims of domestic abuse who seek their assistance (U.S. Department of State ) and judges are said to blame the victims of domestic abuse for their own victimization. The criminal justice system as a whole has even been accused of discriminating against women in the sub-region (U.S. Department of State). Relative to the above, the following need to be taken into account.
Each country within the sub region is made up of multiple ethnic groups whose customs, traditions, norms, values, beliefs, practices, dialects, and languages are different, to say the least. To be sensitive to this ethnic pluralism, the governments allow customary laws to operate alongside civil or general laws as long as such customary laws pass the ‘‘repugnancy test,’’ which is the government’s legal requirement that for a customary law to be enforced, it must neither be repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience nor be contrary to any written law.
It is the common experience in these countries that the law in theory and the law in practice remain estranged; the customary law is actually given precedence over the civil or general law in the case of conflict. Since the state allows the police and the courts (especially those in the rural areas) to operate in accordance with local norms and values, interviews conducted by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reveal that victims of domestic violence (including sexual violence) and their families do not report such abuses to the police but rather seek informal (mostly financial) settlements.
It is postulated that this reluctance to report abuses to the police is due to negative experiences with the criminal justice system, especially with the police. Also, customary norms and practices in the various countries (especially in the rural areas) either do not see anything wrong with wife beating or tolerate the behavior. Consequently, both men and women see spouse abuse as normal (Human Rights Watch); women especially see domestic violence as another burden they must bear (League of Democratic Women). Since the officials of the criminal justice system are products of the same culture, it should be expected that they too would not see anything wrong with a man beating his wife. While this does not justify the abuse or excuse either police or judicial inactivity with reference to this problem, it does indicate that the government of each country needs to embark on a public awareness campaign to educate the public about the ills of certain norms, traditions, customs, and values, as well as the costs of domestic violence to the society at large. It also indicates that the governments need to pass domestic violence legislation detailing the responsibilities of all citizens, the police, court officials, prosecutors, judges, social workers, and counselors, as well as providing and funding shelters for abused women and children.
The public’s reluctance to report abuses to the police also indicates that the governments of West African countries need to pay attention to those customary norms, values, beliefs, and practices that are prejudicial toward women and girls and that make them vulnerable to abuse. For example, whereas statutory laws among West African countries set the age of marriage at between 15 and 21, under the customary laws of the various countries girls are marriageable at 12 and, in some instances of arranged and forced marriages, younger. Along the same line is the custom that requires the family of a prospective husband to pay a ‘‘bride price,’’ or dowry, in the form of money or a gift to the family of the prospective wife (U.S. Department of State). Historically, this payment indicated appreciation for the qualities and skills possessed by the bride and served to cement the relationship between the two families and their respective extended families. Currently, this symbolic gesture is assumed to be equivalent to payment for a commodity and, as in any commercial transaction, entitles the husband-the buyer-to full ownership rights over his ‘‘purchase’’. Having been ‘‘bought,’’ many women married under customary law have no authority within what is seen as the man’s home. According to human rights organizations and the United Nations, this practice subjugates women to the unbridled authority of their husbands because it reinforces the inferior status of women within customary marriages (League of Democratic Women; United Nations) and forces women who cannot repay the dowry to remain in abusive relationships. Another customary practice that contributes to the abuse of women and as a result needs to be given legislative attention by the governments of West African countries is wife inheritance. Once a bride price has been paid, the woman is considered the property of the husband. When he dies, the widow is often unable to collect any inheritance; indeed, since she herself is considered part of the man’s inheritance property, she could be inherited by another male family member, often against her will (AFROL News). If a woman is customarily considered to be her husband’s property and can be inherited by another male family member on the death of her husband, there is not much the police can do for her if she is a victim of abuse; they might even be apt to escort her back to her abusive husband or family, to whom she belongs. Also hampering a positive relationship between abused women and the police and criminal justice system in West Africa is the growing incidence of religious fundamentalism. Fundamentalist and dominant interpretations of Islamic law, Sharia, in countries with large Muslim populations (such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone) treat women as legal minors and accord men the status of heads of their families with guardianship authority over and responsibility for women. These interpretations allow men to have up to four wives, to whom they have unabridged sexual
access and who cannot refuse, because such refusal can be conceived as a defiance of their duties and can give rise to accusations of disobedience, thereby triggering legal justification for beating. In these countries, Sharia tends to be interpreted in ways that give men power over women family members. As a result, women have a duty to obey their guardians-husbands, fathers, or other male heads of the family; failure to do so could result in violence. Such fundamentalist interpretations are evident in decisions handed down by Sharia courts in Nigeria. For example, an appellate Sharia court in northern Nigeria upheld a death by stoning sentence against a woman for having sex outside marriage, while setting free the man she allegedly had sex with on the ground that the court lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the alleged adultery. Under the Maliki School of Thought, dominating interpretation of Sharia penal codes in the twelve northern states in Nigeria which have introduced them since 1999, pregnancy is considered sufficient evidence to condemn a woman to death, but a mere oath by the man denying having had sexual intercourse with the woman is often considered sufficient proof of innocence unless four independent and reputable eyewitnesses declare his involvement in the act of voluntary intercourse. The fault here is not with the police or the criminal justice system failing to protect women or discriminating against women, but with the federal government for allowing such fundamentalist/dominant interpretations of religious tenets to prosper. This article asserts that the criminal justice system in West Africa does not take the problem of domestic violence within the subregion seriously. The authors believe that this is mainly due to the lack of domestic violence legislation and gender-sensitive laws; preference given to statutory and customary laws that discriminate against women and girls; prevalence of customs, traditions, beliefs, and practices that are prejudicial toward women and girls; and the inability of the governments of West African countries to check the growing incidence of religious fundamentalism and ethnic intolerance.
(7) Domestic Violence
Victims of Domestic Violence
Initial research recognized wives as victims of domestic violence. Thereafter, it was acknowledged that unmarried women were also falling victim to violence at the hands of their boyfriends. Subsequently, the term ‘‘battered women’’ became synonymous with ‘‘battered wives.’’ Legitimizing female victimization served as the catalyst in introducing other types of intimate partner violence.
There is no single causal factor related to domestic violence. Rather, scholars have concluded that there are numerous factors that contribute to domestic violence. Feminists found that women were beaten at the hands of their partners. Drawing on feminist theory, they helped explain the relationship between patriarchy and domestic violence. Researchers have examined other theoretical perspectives such as attachment theory, exchange theory, identity theory, the cycle of violence, social learning theory, and victim-blaming theory in explaining domestic violence. However, factors exist that may not fall into a single theoretical perspective. Correlates have shown that certain factors such as pregnancy, social class, level of education, animal abuse, and substance abuse may influence the likelihood for victimization.
It was essential to acknowledge that domestic violence crosses cultural boundaries and religious affiliations. There is no one particular society or religious group exempt from victimization. A variety of developed and developing countries examined in understanding the prevalence of domestic violence within their societies as well as their coping strategies in handling these volatile issues. It is often misunderstood that one religious group is more tolerant of family violence than another. Like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism represent the three major religions of the world, their ideologies were explored in relation to the acceptance and prevalence of domestic violence.
Domestic violence has typically examined traditional relationships, such as husband-wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, and parent-child. Consequently, scholars have historically ignored non-traditional relationships. In fact, certain entries have limited cross-references based on the fact that there were limited, if any, scholarly publications on that topic. Only since the 1990s have scholars admitted that violence exists among lesbians and gay males. There are other ignored populations like violence within military and police families, violence within pseudo-family environments, and violence against women and children with disabilities.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 in the USA helped pave domestic violence concerns into legislative matters. Historically, family violence was handled through informal measures often resulting in the mishandling of cases. Through VAWA, victims were given the opportunity to have their cases legally remedied. This legitimized the separation of specialized domestic and family violence courts from criminal courts. The law has recognized that victims of domestic violence deserve recognition and resolution. Law enforcement agencies may be held civilly accountable for their actions in domestic violence incidents. Mandatory arrest policies have been initiated helping reduce discretionary power of police officers. Courts have also begun to focus on the offenders of domestic violence. Currently, there are batterer intervention programs and mediation programs available for offenders within certain jurisdictions. Its goals are to reduce the rate of recidivism among batterers.
Scholars began to address child abuse over the last third of the twentieth century. It is now recognized that child abuse falls within a wide spectrum. In the past, it was based on visible bruises and scars. Today, researchers have acknowledged that psychological abuse, where there are no visible injuries, is just as damaging as its counterpart. One of the greatest controversies in child abuse literature is that of Munchausen by Proxy. Some scholars have recognized that it is a syndrome while others would deny a syndrome exists. Regardless of the term ‘‘syndrome,’’ Munchausen by Proxy does exist and needs to be examined. Another form of violence that needs to be further examined is elder abuse. Elder abuse literature typically focused on abuse perpetrated by children and caregivers.
With increased life expectancies, it is now understood that there is a greater probability for violence among elderly intimate couples. Shelters and hospitals need to better understand this unique population in order to better serve its victims.