Monday, February 26, 2024

Domestic violence- personal or political?

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By Patricia Mukhim

“Our lives end the day we become silent about the things that matter” Martin Luther King Jr

The above quote came from a young pastor who kept the audience riveted with his unconventional thinking and bold convictions. The occasion was World Mental Health Day. The theme was Domestic Violence and the venue was SAN-KER.

We listen to speeches everyday but seldom do we encounter life changing exhortations. When we do hear something earthshaking, I believe transformation is on its way. SAN-KER is a no frills institution. It brings us down to earth and puts us in touch with issues we would rather sweep under the carpet. On its 21st Foundation Day, SAN-KER took a leap of faith to draw attention to an issue that is threatening to upset the societal equilibrium. Domestic violence affects not just the abused woman but also the children and other members of the family. Dr Sandi Syiem, the founder and nurturer of SAN-KER, one of the first private mental health care institutions of repute in the region got together experts from diverse walks of life as resource persons. There were social work practitioners, teachers of social work, legal experts, clinical psychologists, pastors and representative from the police each with their perspectives on domestic violence, its impact and repercussions and how it could be tackled.

For as long as I can remember domestic violence has been a private affair. When we hear a woman next door being battered we are advised by our elders not to interfere. “It’s a personal affair,” we are cautioned. “If you intervene you will become the offender because when the couple makes up, you will become the enemy.” So each time we heard cries and shouts from next door we would shut our ears and try and fall asleep. Next day we would tentatively ask other neighbours, “What happened last night.” They would say, “It’s the same old story. She has got black eye and some bruises which she says was caused by a fall so what can we do?” That has been the story of domestic violence in Meghalaya until about ten years ago when the issue became serious enough to enter the public domain.

Many women vehemently deny they are living in abusive relationships. The reasons are diverse. Many cannot contemplate divorce because they are economically dependent on their husband or partner (in a cohabitation). At other times it’s what psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Berejot calls the Stockholm Syndrome where the abused person is in love with the abuser. This phenomenon is typically
called ‘partner abuse’.

Many women vehemently deny they are living in abusive relationships. The reasons are diverse. Many cannot contemplate divorce because they are economically dependent on their husband or partner (in a cohabitation). At other times it’s what psychiatrist and criminologist Nils Berejot calls the Stockholm Syndrome where the abused person is in love with the abuser. This phenomenon is typically called ‘partner abuse’.

I was particularly interested in what clinical psychologist, Jasmine Lyngdoh currently counselor at Loreto Convent had to say about children growing up in abusive homes where parents are constantly fighting. She says they grow up with limited resources to manage their teen and adult lives. They lose their emotional and social competencies and in later life are incapable of healthy attachments. They suffer from loss of support and connection with the larger society. Such children also lose their curiousity and exploring behaviour and become listless. In later life they are incapable of long term commitments and go from one relationship to another. Some get into romantic links early in life hoping to get the fulfillment they are deprived of at home but end up as victims of teenage pregnancies.

Listening to the experts one also concluded that children growing up in homes where domestic violence is a daily trauma and who see the abused mother compromise to placate the perpetrator of violence, soon learn to believe that to be interpersonally engaged with another is to be abused. Or that abuse is the only way to be in a relationship. It often becomes a self fulfilling prophecy Ot Like a self fulfilling prophecy the children predict themselves to be in abusive situatioIns and more often than not land up in such situations because their mental make-up is already conditioned to be at the receiving end. That’s what they learnt watching their mothers. For boys the impact of living in a condition of domestic violence is somewhat different. They could either lose their self esteem, become withdrawn, their studies could suffer, they could become emotional wrecks or turn to become ‘difficult children’ involved in stealing, bullying etc. In their adult lives it is likely that they will perpetrate similar violence on another, more generally on other women.

What was significant about the seminar on Domestic Violence is that the church too has apparently come out of its closet and is ready to engage with real issues. The young pastor I mentioned in the first paragraph, Reuben Laloo, currently heading the Reach Shillong Ministry which cares for street children and sex workers gave one of a brilliant presentation, candid and down to earth. He said one of the reasons why the church has shied away from tackling the issue of domestic violence is because (a) the church is in denial that its members could be perpetrator of domestic violence and that other members could be victims of oppression (b) the church fears that it might be advocating divorce (c) It fears to take a risk and go into what is essentially known to be “family business.” But that apart it is also true that church leaders are not adequately trained to tackle these sensitive family issues or even to counsel those who are in abusive relationships. Rev Laloo propagated that the church’s goal today should be to put an end to domestic violence. His bold statement that the church should not only be talking about heaven but address the real problems that people face on a day to day basis on this earth, is perhaps something that should have happened a long time ago. This dynamic pastor proposed among other things that the church should re-check its world view on the role and status of women in the light of the current gender discourses. I suppose we should have many more pastors like this one to transform society.

Domestic violence does not always manifest in physical abuse or what we call ‘wife beating’ only. It could be verbal emotional, psychological abuse and even suppressing a woman’s right to mobility and taking up the employment of her choice. Sometimes domestic violence comes in the form of a deep, perennial suspicion by the man of the woman and nagging her about her fidelity or the lack of it.

When the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) a couple of years ago put Meghalaya on the map as the State where domestic violence was at its highest, many respectable people baulked at the statistics and decried it as total bunkum. And this is our problem as a society. We never accept facts that do not conform with our rosy views about our society. Matriliny is taken as an anchor sheet to hide many of the abuses that go on in society. Women are conditioned to believe that they are a privileged lot because they come from a matrilineal society. Little do they realise that except for the lineage bit, and except for the fact that we do not have dowry demands, in all other spheres and particularly in the area of domestic violence women in Meghalaya put up with the same kind of abuses as their sisters in other states of the country.

This is clearly evident from the trauma that children growing up in such troubled homes suffer from and the behavioural abnormalities they exhibit in schools and other social spaces. It is not without reason that so many young people today are no longer the cheerful, happy-go-lucky kids they are meant to be. Many loses their childhood too early and grow up with the burden of seeing one parent, heaping abuses on the other while they remain helpless and unable to help the oppressed parent. The trauma such children face is unbelievable. And if they do not get timely help and counselling they will tend to slip into depression and other mental health disorders.

Domestic violence does not always manifest in physical abuse or what we call ‘wife beating’ only. It could be verbal emotional, psychological abuse and even suppressing a woman’s right to mobility and taking up the employment of her choice. Sometimes domestic violence comes in the form of a deep, perennial suspicion by the man of the woman and nagging her about her fidelity or the lack of it. Inflicting unwanted pregnancies on a woman is also a form of violence. It’s an imposition women feel strongly about but are afraid to speak up. In fact even fertility is controlled by men since many of them refuse to adopt family planning methods. In Meghalaya, desertion by the male can be construed as a violence since the number of female-headed households is very high.

 

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