VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
When you hear about family violence or spousal abuse, it is not surprising that most people would assume that you were talking about women. There's no question that the vast majority of published articles and data refer to wife abuse or abused women and the information is serious and troubling. About 70 Canadian women die at the hands of their male partner each year and so many more are physically or emotionally abused. Having served 5 years on the Board of Directors of the womens shelter in my own community, I am well aware of many specific tragic cases which have sensitized me to the severity of the problem. I am also a firm believer that there is no excuse for abuse and I support zero tolerance initiatives.
Most of the literature addressing the issue of abuse of women makes substantial use of the concepts of power and control. The most prevalent indictment of men is that they maintain a power imbalance and control over women through abuse. Womens advocates say that the abuse manifests itself in a number of ways such as the following:
- Using Intimidation - making her afraid by using looks, actions, gestures, smashing things, destroying her property, abusing pets, or displaying weapons.
- Using Emotional Abuse - putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, calling her names, making her think she's crazy, playing mind games, humiliating her, and making her feel guilty.
- Using Isolation - controlling what she does, who she sees and talks to, what she reads, where she goes, limiting her outside involvement, using jealousy to justify the actions.
- Minimizing, Denying and Blaming - making light of the abuse and not taking her concerns about it seriously, saying the abuse didn't happen, shifting responsibility for abusive behaviour, and saying she caused it.
- Using the Children - making her feel guilty about children, using the children to relay messages, using visitation to harass her and threatening to take the children away.
- Using Male Privilege - treating her like a servant, making all the big decisions, acting like a master of the castle, being the one to define men's and women's roles.
- Using Economic Abuse - preventing her from getting or keeping a job, making her ask for money, giving her an allowance, taking her money, not letting her know about or have access to family income.
- Using Coercion and Threats - making and/or laying of threats to do something to hurt her, threatening to leave her, to commit suicide, to report her to welfare, making her drop charges or making her do illegal things.
There also is a cycle of violence against women which has been generally accepted in the industry. The following is a concise description extracted from the Peel Regional Police Training Manual:
The cycle of violence has three distinct phases: a tension-building phase, an explosive incident, and a honeymoon phase. In the tension-building phase, a man begins to feel angry, frustrated or out of control, often as a result of the incidents or experiences that are external to his relationship. The man is unable to express his feelings or to connect them to his external experiences, and so he tries to legitimize his feelings by blaming them on real or imagined things that his partner has said or done. The man may release his growing anger and frustration by initiating minor abusive incidents, such as pushing, shoving, or calling the woman names, which become more frequent and intense as time goes on. At the same time, the man may become increasingly jealous of the woman and attempt to exert more and more control over her activities and interactions with other people.
The woman often does not understand why the man is angry and frustrated. She may blame the mans behaviour on outside forces, such as pressures at work or the consumption of alcohol, but she may also wonder whether she is in some way contributing to his anger and frustration. As the man's behaviour becomes less and less rational, the woman may begin to believe, at some level, that the abuse is legitimately directed at her. The woman attempts to handle the man by being placating or conciliatory, or by trying to stay out of his way. Her goal is to prevent further abuse by diffusing the man's tension and anger, in the belief that if she waits long enough, the situation will change and the abusive behaviour will stop.
Despite the woman's efforts, the man's tension inevitably builds to the point where he loses control and an explosive incident occurs. The abuse is again often triggered by an external event in the life of the man, but is blamed on, or related to one or a number of complaints about the woman or the woman's behaviour that the man raised in the tension-building phase. The first explosive incident which occurs may be relatively minor, such as a man pushing a woman or calling her a hurtful and abusive name. Subsequent abusive incidents become more and more significant, and may ultimately involve serious violence including punching, choking, rape, and use of weapons or objects. If sexual assault is involved, particularly when objects are used during the assault, the likelihood increases that even greater acts of violence will follow. The police or other service agencies are generally contacted at this point, if at all.
Shock, disbelief and denial follow the explosive incident for both the man and the woman. They try to rationalize the seriousness of the incident: the man may attempt to reduce his feeling of responsibility for the abuse by emphasizing the woman's behaviour which he believes triggered the incident; the woman may minimize the extent of her physical and emotional injuries or convince herself that the abuse was somehow warranted. At this time, the woman invariably experiences depression and feelings of helplessness.
The honeymoon phase follows. The man becomes contrite and behaves in a charming and loving manner. He apologizes for the abuse, asks the woman for her forgiveness, and promises that further abuse will never occur. Typically, he reinforces his apologies with candy, flowers, cards and other gifts, or promises to change behaviour, such as consuming alcohol or working overtime, which the woman believes contributed to problems in the tension-building phase.
The honeymoon phase of the cycle of violence gives the woman a false sense of hope and power. She sees the positive characteristics of the man she fell in love with, and she feels she has the power to force the man to seek help for his abusive behaviour. As a woman becomes more committed to saving her relationship, she isolates herself from relationships with friends or family which were a source of the man's jealousy in the tension-building phase. The man and woman become increasingly emotionally dependent upon each other and convince themselves they can resolve their problems alone. At this time a woman who has called the police will often urge the Crown to drop charges which were laid against the man as a result of the explosive incident.
As time goes on, tension mounts, another incident occurs, another honeymoon follows: the cycle of violence repeats itself. The cycle may take days, weeks, months, or even years to be completed. However, it often grows shorter over time, and the severity of the explosive incident generally increases with each cycle. Each cycle a woman passes through tends to lower her self-esteem and impair her judgment. It becomes more and more difficult for her to leave the relationship, or to recognize that she is not responsible for the violence in the relationship.
It is also well accepted that the impact of abuse has a significant adverse affect on children in the family. The following is a summary of the impacts as compiled by The National Clearinghouse on Family Violence:
- From 40% to 80% of children witness domestic violence.
- In 52% of violent relationships in which children witnessed the violence, women feared for their lives, and in 61% of abusive relationships where the child is a witness, the violence was serious enough to result in the woman being injured.
- When a woman is forced to flee her home, children suffer disruption of their home routines, relationships with friends, and often, their schooling. They may be pre-occupied with fear that violence will re-occur, and are often aware of threats and attempts at contact, or stalking, by their fathers. At the same time, children may be relieved to be in a safer place.
- Child witnesses of violence against their mothers, experience similar emotional, health and behavioural problems as children who are themselves directly abused.
- In a Canada-wide study of abused women, women reported that their partners have abused their children physically (26%), psychologically (48%), and sexually (7%).
- 25% of children who have lived in a shelter for assaulted women felt it was all right for a man to strike a woman if the house was dirty. After group counseling, none of the children supported a man hitting a woman.
- Children of abused women show a number of common characteristics including: blaming themselves for the violence, physical complaints such as stomach aches and headaches, sleep disturbances such as nightmares or insomnia, eating problems, rigid gender role identification, with girls acting withdrawn, passive, compliant and acting as mothers little helper, whereas boys were aggressive, bullying and showing self-destructive behaviour.
- Studies indicate that the above child adjustment problems relate more to witnessing domestic violence than to the separation, divorce, or loss of parents.
- An estimated 30% - 40% of children who witnessed violence against their mother by a partner are also abused directly by the partner, whether or not he is their father.
- A pattern of physical and emotional abuse of mother by father, or other male partner, is common in families in which children are sexually abused by fathers.
- Children who witnessed violence are at risk for further violence, either as a perpetrator or a victim.
One of the most common questions asked is why a woman in an abusive relationship does not leave. Based on some of the literature produced, the following are the most common responses:
- She hopes the relationship will get better
- She doesnt want to break up a family
- Her partners abuse isolates her from friends and family
- She fears for her own and her children's safety
- She depends on her partners income
- She has lost her self-esteem because of her partners abuse
- She has nowhere else to go
- Her partner has threatened to harm her if she leaves
The tragedy of violence against women is a complex problem which has no simple solution. It will take a comprehensive strategy of both preventative and remedial approaches and it needs the active support of all concerned, including men.