Domestic violence is not women’s fault

Dr Mary Spooner, founding director of The Change Centre has a commentary about DV published today in the Caribbean News, that’s worth checking out. The phenomenon of domestic violence is more deeply embedded in our lives than we might care to admit. However, domestic violence is not women’s fault; it is a construct of our historical, cultural, economic and social relations that rests firmly on the power and control of men in Caribbean society. A recent publication on the Caribbean Net News website discussed the experiences and heroism of one young lady who eventually found her niche and has been successful in leaving an abusive relationship. Acts of bravery such as these by young women everywhere should be commended. However, if we really want to address the problem of domestic violence in Caribbean states we must look beyond ourselves as women; we must look beyond sustaining women’s efforts of subsistence employment to the victimization that lies deep in our communities and institutions and those practices that even women help men to enforce thus further victimizing women.

To speak singularly of finding jobs and getting a skill is commendable but it places the blame squarely at the feet of women; it says if only we would be more active we would not be abused. Further, this concept must be approached with caution because one risks adding an additional burden to women’s already complex triple roles as primary caregivers, community leaders and managers, and breadwinners. This approach is also naïve and in many cases unrealistic. It is true that economic engagement does help women to avoid social entrapment linked to dependence on men but the issue looms larger. I posit that the problem of women abuse by their male partners is embedded in the cultural, social and institutional practices around us and until we address these problems, not even with all the women in the world gainfully employed will the abuse of women stop.

I speak specifically of the need to address the strategic gender needs of women. Moser (1993) spoke of women’s needs as practical and strategic gender needs. By finding women jobs so that they can feed themselves and their kids we address women’s practical gender needs but social problems like domestic violence requires that we address women’s strategic gender needs. In other words, we must address those communal and institutional patterns of abuse of women that reinforce and victimize women on a daily basis. We have to address the human rights of women to live as individuals free of fear of sexual abuse and gender related victimization.

Within our community there are some cultural patterns of behaviour that even women uphold thus, unknowingly upholding the victimization of women. Every Caribbean woman knows, for example, the cultural taboo of being childless, and the ostracism that women experience at the hands of other women. Some women consort with men and have children just to avoid such ostracism. Many women remain in violent marriages to avoid a similar form of ostracism linked to being held at fault for a failed marriage. Young women, in particular, are harassed by men sitting on the sidewalks who feel it is their God-given right to touch and/or verbally abuse women and undress women with their eyes when women are out of their reach. Women are repeatedly beaten by men purportedly as a means of expressing their “manhood”. These beatings go unaddressed by the society and even the institutions, such as the police, created by our laws to protect citizens. Researchers such as Danns and Parsad (1989) and Spooner (2001) found that the police and existing laws do not serve battered women well. Spooner (2001) reports the comment of one female police officer regarding police response to women’s abuse in one Caribbean state which appears not to be unusual throughout the region, “In some cases the police will run her out of the station and say he tired see her for the past weeks with the same problem. He will dismiss it there and then. Some male officers are very insensitive to domestic violence matters and they laugh it off with their colleagues.”

Despite the enactment of domestic violence legislation in virtually all of the independent states of the English-speaking Caribbean, women’s abuse appears to be escalating in frequency and in severity. We have not seen any appreciable change in male female relationships with regard to reduced domestic abuse. Some women do not even know their rights with regard to protection orders. Many jurisdictions do not allow women to get protection orders if they do not live with partners who abuse them. The women left out of these provisions represent a significant percentage of Caribbean women.

Additionally, there are the challenges that women face as a result of religious beliefs and teachings that encourage women to believe that a man is the “head of the house” and thus women should submit themselves to men. Strong Caribbean women stoically and faithfully worship Sunday after Sunday despite the pain and frustration of male abuse. Responsible religious leaders, however, accept that while teaching subservience to male headship makes sense for men who are equally willing and able to take on household leadership, it makes no sense, for example, if the head of the house is a drunkard with no vision for his family. We might also focus on the sexual harassment, rape and victimization of women that takes place everyday in our society. Acts of violence for which men are hardly, if ever, punished because of their stature in society and prevent women from being fully economically active. We must not overlook the several young women who are victims of teenage pregnancy by men who are much older than they are; in the right perspective these are equally acts of abuse that the society overlooks.

This is not a message that the majority of Caribbean men would like to hear but it must be expressed nonetheless because the inequity in gender relations evident across the Caribbean has left women susceptible not only to domestic abuse but also to health problems as evident in the growing number of cases of HIV/AIDS in the region. Unless and until we address the strategic gender needs of women and the inequity in gender relations in conjunction with women’s practical gender needs, problems such as domestic violence will persist and we will continue to empower women to create the next generation of victims.