No little girl dreams of growing up to become a battered wife. But with statistics showing that the number of women in different countries suffering from domestic violence ranges from 15 per cent (in Japan) to 70 per cent (in Ethiopia), it seems many of them do. Why? Because their knight in shining armour whisks them off their feet and carries them off into the sunset. And when they are far enough away that nobody can see them, he beats her up. It's as simple as that. Women do not choose violence. It's not a trait they seek out (GSOH, non-smoker, abuser) when choosing a mate, and it's not a trait that potential suitors brag about during the wooing phase. So often - not always, but often - the abuse doesn't rear its angry fists until a little while into the relationship, by which point there is an emotional connection, a commitment, a shared home, a shared life. And by then, it's too late to avoid it.
The confounding question here is not whether domestic abuse happens or not. We all know it does - and it's not just us, other primates are at it as well. According to an article in American Scientist, chimpanzees and baboons use physical aggression as ‘indirect coercion' to ensure that their chosen females do not mate with other males. The question is, why? Why do men do it? After all they wouldn't let anyone else beat up their wives. And why do women stay?
Sonia*, 45, from Kenya, watched her mother suffer years of domestic abuse at the hands of her father only to watch her younger sister go down the same path. Sonia's sister was beaten by her husband for 15 years until one day he nearly killed her, so she took her four children and left. "This is a universal problem," Sonia says. "I don't know why it happens, or why women stay... perhaps it's how we are brought up. I think the abuser takes away their power, their confidence, their economic security. They get scared of being alone."
There's plenty of research that suggests, and proves, that people who are victimised at a young age often continue to play that role later in life, in other relationships. Donna Needs, a personal success coach at Whitehorse Consulting (whitehorse-consulting.biz) says, "We all have habits and patterns, which start early in our lives. Some serve us well, like brushing our teeth and looking both ways when we cross the road. But some, such as being dominated, or being a victim, don't. Unfortunately, whether it serves us well or not, it becomes our reality and the pattern becomes difficult to break."
Similarly, most abusers have been conditioned to abuse from a young age. "Abusers are part of the pattern, too. They also need help and, in my opinion, deserve a bit of compassion," Donna says. "They have remorse. They want to do better, but don't know how. It's about helping people break their patterns."
Cynthia Grguric, counselling psychologist at LifeWorks Counselling and Development (www.lifeworksdubai.com), agrees. "The abuser is only concerned with making themselves feel good," she says. "If abusing you makes them feel good, they'll keep doing it. They were most likely to have been a victim at some point - it's the victim/abuser cycle. Victims feel powerless and robbed of their dignity. So, to make themselves feel better, they seek out someone to overpower themselves."
In some countries and communities, women are encouraged to leave abusive relationships and there are support services in place to assist them. In other communities it's not that simple. In both situations, some women still choose to stay. So it can't just come down to social stigma and finances.
Anita Sunil is a clinical psychologist at Dubai Foundation for Women and Children (www.dfwac.ae), which supports victims of emotional, physical, sexual, mental and financial abuse and offers refuge in particular cases. They aim to protect women and children from abuse, prevent ongoing abuse and escalating violence and promote outreach through the community. She says that many of the domestic violence victims who contact them for help don't want to leave their situation. She says, "I feel that the number one reason they stay is societal pressure. But the second is because they love their partner."
This seems incomprehensible - someone is beating you, abusing you, destroying your happiness, your children's happiness, and you still love them? Success coach Donna says, "Abuse is not just about harm, it's about learned systems of how relationships operate. It's insidious and it cuts across all cultures, races and societies. It's easy for us on the outside to see the price to the victim and harder to see what she's getting out of it, but there must be something."
There's often a spell of tenderness and love immediately after an attack, which is called ‘the honeymoon period'. The abuser will be full of remorse, affection and apologies, which, for the victims - who are often neglected and dismissed the rest of the time - might be the only bit of sunshine they get, so they bask in it. At the same time, abuse systematically breaks down their self-esteem and makes them feel that leaving, heading out into the world on their own, might be more dangerous, or more scary, than staying.
LifeWorks's Cynthia says, "The psychological torment is almost worse than the physical harm in this sense, because, in order to control someone, the abuser has to convince that person that they are no good - that they deserve to be mistreated. This subsequent lack of self-esteem means victims don't fight the situation." Hence why people who have been abused as children often accept it as adults - they often believe they deserve it, and even that they are to blame. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to fight it - a point all the experts reiterate. Anita says, "The longer you stay, the more your self-esteem and personality deteriorates. Eventually you will feel paralysed in your situation and unable to get out."
One person who did get out was 30-year-old Aila* from Egypt, whose 18-month relationship with the man of her dreams suddenly, and viciously, changed into a domestic violence hell just three days after her wedding. Despite her better instincts to leave immediately, Aila stayed for another four months, suffering brutal beatings every two or three weeks before finally getting the police involved and leaving him for good. She says, "After the first time, I didn't tell anyone. I felt so ashamed and embarrassed... we had just got married, we were supposed to be the happiest couple around. He sounded sincere with his apologies... but something broke inside me that day. And even now, a year after the divorce, I still haven't been able to fix it."
Aila's emotional and mental health quickly deteriorated and after the second incident, on their one month wedding anniversary, she started blaming herself. She says, "He beat me really badly that day and afterwards he apologised and said, ‘I'm sorry... but it's your fault. You made me hit you.' I know it's wrong now, but a large part of me blamed myself. I thought, ‘If I keep my opinions to myself and don't upset him, it will stop.' I got really depressed and my weight dropped to 46 kilos. I was losing my hair... I was sick inside and out."
A couple of months later, when Aila confided in her brother, she had an opportunity to leave. But after a seven-hour meeting with both her family and her husband's family, she decided - against her family's wishes - to give it another try. She says, "I loved him and wanted it to work. To people on the outside, they can't understand it... but I can't deny that I loved him. I still do."
Another month later, a few weeks after finding out she was pregnant, the most vicious attack left Aila battered and bruised and, devastatingly, brought on a miscarriage. That was the end for Aila and she filed for divorce. A year on, Aila's physical wounds are long gone, but her emotional and mental scars stay with her. She says, "Until now I just can't stop thinking, ‘Why?' It still hurts and it's very difficult for me to imagine that I can ever trust someone again. He seemed perfect, but he was the opposite. A part of me died in that relationship - the innocent girl in me who believed in true love and meeting The One. I'm not the same person. When you're going through it you feel hated and not wanted. I was lucky enough to want to leave."
Aila's full story of her experience with domestic violence
Carrying the scars
As Aila's account demonstrates perfectly, stopping the violence doesn't stop the hurting. The emotional and mental wounds they suffer when the people who are supposed to love them the most purposefully and brutally break their spirit are (understandably) complex, deep-rooted and long-lasting.
Tragically, the same can be said of any children involved, no matter how well you think you are shielding them. Anita says, "Parents often don't realise that their children are taking more of a battering than they are. They think their children don't know about the violence, but they are smart. They know. And they carry the scars into their adult life, resulting in unhealthy relationships, trust issues, communication issues, behavioural issues, confusion and a feeling of being out of control. I can't stress how important it is that the child gets an opportunity to talk as they often can't talk to their parents about it. We need to hear from the children, so they can express their feelings and fears, and so we know what support they need. A big part of what we do at DFWAC is educating parents on this."
Sonia, who has personal experience of how domestic violence between parents affects children says, "People wonder why I never got married but, after what I have seen, why would I? OK, I'm sure not all the men I meet are abusers but, personally, I don't want to find out. When my sister was being abused by her husband, her children were beaten too and they told us what was happening. She got out and they are building new lives now, but the kids are withdrawn and their academics have been affected. We are trying to support them, but at some point in the children's lives, this experience will cause them issues. I don't think children should be a reason to stay."
Even though we are all aware of domestic violence, the statistics are still shocking. It would be interesting to know how many women choose to leave and how many choose to stay; unfortunately, the muted, concealed, private nature of domestic violence doesn't make this possible and, tragically, it's probably the very worst cases that we never hear about.
However, experts confirm that of the ones who find the strength to seek help - which is in itself a massive step - a large majority of them have no intention, or desire, to leave. The goal, then, becomes bolstering them with enough self-esteem, self-awareness, mental strength and focus to get themselves through the bad times with as much energy and positivity as they can muster... which is no easy feat.
Cynthia says, "My aim with my clients is to help them find empowerment and support, and to make them feel safe, in whatever choice and decision they make. This may involve strategies to help them work around and through the cycle of violence, and helping them to stop the negative internal dialogue - the mental torment - where they blame and verbally abuse themselves. A lot of the time just having someone to talk to in order to validate their experience is huge. Many women can't talk to the women around them - because culturally it is frowned upon, or because they are ashamed, or because they are worried it will make the situation worse. But finding safe people to talk to and opening up about it can really help women to know that they're not crazy and that they're not to blame."
Anita runs regular empowerment sessions for victims of abuse. "It boosts their self-esteem and confidence," she says, "and, most importantly, their communication skills. We have people of all different nationalities, which means that language can be a barrier, so we have to make it interesting and fun. It really helps them channel their emotions and forget about everything for a while."
Anita calls on society to help fight against domestic violence. She says, "If you know someone in a violent relationship, look after them. They often to try to hide it, but they need help. If we can make these victims stronger, they will be in a better position to understand the situation and to free themselves of the fear, sentiment, guilt and shame that dominates them. They need to have a healthy attitude - negativity makes them lose focus and makes them succumb to being a victim. If we can do this, then we can help them fight what's going on in their lives - whether they want to stay or leave."
Choosing to stay - whether it's out of duty, out of love, out of fear, or because you simply can't find a way of leaving - doesn't mean you must roll over and play the victim. You still need to stay strong mentally and emotionally, and only you can make that happen. Donna says, "Get help - you don't have to stick it out alone. Tell yourself that you deserve to be loved and respected and that it's not your fault." Cynthia says, "Identify why you're staying and what your goals are. Being aware of your choices and why you are making them gives you power." Anita says, "Find ways to care for yourself, so you can maintain positive energy and have a healthy perspective. If you can fight for your rights, then you must do so."
- 25% The percentage of women who will experience domestic violence
- 7 The number of women in the US beaten or assaulted every minute
- 95% The estimated percent of domestic violence cases that are not reported
- 30% The percent of female victims in the US who are killed by their partner
- 10m The number of children who witness domestic violence annually
Anita Sunil, clinical psychologist at Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, says, "When victims of domestic violence stay with their abusers, it's important they have a safety plan and coping strategies. These may differ from person to person."
Anita shares her top strategies:
Talk to someone you can trust.
Instruct children, who are also major victims of the violence you are experiencing, not to get involved and how to get help.
Develop other interests, or involvements, so you feel you are caring for yourself emotionally.
Seek counselling or intervention programmes.
Educate yourself as it helps to identify, understand better and deal more effectively with it.
Have safety strategies in place, so you can protect yourself and your children. If you need help with this, call our hotline (800-111).
Seek help straight away as there's more of a chance of decreasing the escalations when you start early. Sometimes it's just the right awareness strategy that is needed.
Teach children that violence is never right even when someone they love is being violent. Tell them that neither you, nor they, are at fault and that it's important for them to keep safe.
Keep a personal log if you want to pursue legal protection. It's also a good way to start dealing with the abuse in your life.
Get medical treatment if there is even the slightest injury from physical abuse and collect a medical report.
Get counselling - survivors of domestic violence struggle with self-esteem, abandonment, fear and post-traumatic stress. As a therapist working with such victims, I can see how psychotherapy allows them to gain a healthy perspective on the trauma and decreases the negative symptoms. It helps in gaining awareness of what maintains the cycle of abuse, strategies to interrupt the insidious cycle, and helps to mend the psychological and emotional pain, while changing the habits of victimisation.
Take pictures and keep them in a safe place where they will not be found by the abuser.
Look for a shelter home that protects and provides safe refuge, as leaving is a dangerous time for abused women and their children. If you do not wish to utilise shelter, still call a shelter hotline for information on their non-residential services, such as counselling, and their resources, like Legal Advocacy, to help navigate the legal process.
Leave. You have the right to live in a home that is free of abuse. Therefore, you have the right to leave home if your safety is threatened. When children are at risk of emotional or physical harm, or of being taken from you, take them with you (if possible). If there is no court order giving someone else custody, you have the legal right to take your children with you even if you leave the country.
Dubai Foundation for Women and Children offers free support to victims of violence. Call the helpline (800-111), visit www.dfwac.ae, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or find it on Facebook.
Womens' Aid is a UK charity for victims of domestic violence. It has a very active Survivors' Forum where women share their stories, fears and feelings, and support each other. Visit www.womensaid.org.uk