By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
The problem of domestic abuse and violence affecting both men and women in equal measure is prevalent in all societies and cultures whatever their level of development
Even as our local dark series of recent femicides – women killed by their husbands or partners, or “ex’s” — continued to make the headlines, women in Paris staged a public demonstration after a 100th killing was recorded, according to the BBC on 3 September 2019. It was that of 21-year-old Salomé, whose disfigured body was found ‘hidden under rubbish, branches and an old quilt’. Details of her being violently attacked by her partner in the street at night after they had quarrelled were given by neighbours, following which an investigation was opened by the local prosecutor’s office for femicide, and the partner arrested
In 2018, the official figures were 121 femicides. The women demonstrators were asking for strict anti-femicide measures to be taken by the government, and in the meantime the 101st case was recorded! — that of a 92-year-old woman killed by her 94-year-old husband in southern France.
According to the same source, in ‘Western Europe, France is said to be among the countries with the highest rate of women killed by their partner, with 0.18 victims per 100,000 women, according to 2017 Eurostat figures’. ‘This compares with a rate of 0.13 in Switzerland, 0.11 in Italy and 0.12 in Spain, but is less than in Germany (0.23).’ Statistics of course can never give an idea of the grim reality of these acts of violence as they unfold.
In response the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe launched a summit around the subject comprising all the important stakeholders, such as community and association representatives, police, judges, lawyers and government ministers. As well as announcing a ‘number of initial emergency measures, including the creation of 1,000 shelter places and emergency accommodation from next year, and an audit of 400 police stations to see how women’s complaints are handled’.
Further, ‘€5m (£4.5m) would be released in the fight against femicide, the complaints procedure would be simplified, the protection of women under threat would be improved, and their partners would be removed more quickly’. Further, he ‘also floated the idea that those convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order would have to wear an electronic bracelet to protect women from further violence’.
As expected, ‘representatives of domestic violence associations have said much more is needed to effectively combat the problem’, and ‘final measures will be announced in November’.
As medical practitioners, we are automatically involved in cases of domestic violence as we have to examine the victims, most often in a ‘Casualty’ setting in hospital, and often at night when such violence tends to take place for whatever reason(s). I myself recall having seen a number of cases, both when I was still a ‘généraliste’ as well as when I became a specialist. One woman was kicked so hard in her chest that she had several ribs broken; another had such a huge black eye that I wondered how come her facial bones were still intact. Both of them were accompanied by their elderly mothers.
Another case I recall was a thirty-plus old lady whom we had to take to the operation theatre immediately, as she had had several injuries and was bleeding profusely. But if I may put it this way, she was ‘lucky’ to have been spared of being paralysed: the knife with which she was assaulted stopped just short of her spinal cord – indeed, I breathed a sigh of relief when on examining the wound under general anaesthesia I saw that the knife point had only nicked the bone: two more millimetres and it would have damaged the cord.
Health personnel are not given any special training in the general handling of such persons, and given that their numbers are increasing by the day, perhaps something should be done along these lines.
What about battered men?
In the interest of balance and fairness, I think that this aspect of domestic violence should also be considered, and men face significant stigma when coming forward to report being battered, with battered husbands facing ‘judgment from others around them and even professionals:
The article reference ‘Tracy, N. (2012, July 27). Battered Men, Battered Husbands: It’s No Joke!, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/domestic-violence/battered-men-battered-husbands-its-no-joke’ makes a short analysis of the issue in Australia, although the statistics may not be quite reflective of the extent of the problem. Nevertheless, it is no less real and as it pointed out, ‘often there is mutual partner violence, where both the man and the woman are violent to each other. It appears that males are the victims of different types of domestic abuse than females and the injuries are often more severe for men’.
And additionally, male victims of domestic abuse face high levels of battering when in same-sex relationships, with ‘5% of men report being raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by their male cohabitant (as compared to 7.7% when the cohabitant is female)’.
On the other hand and unfortunately, men face significant stigma when coming forward to report being battered, with battered husbands facing ‘judgment from others around them and even professionals:
‘Who to talk to for advice – family or friends? No way. I looked up the Yellow Pages. The voice answering the phone at the Rape Crisis Center said, ‘Only women are abused’. I spoke to a doctor. She seemed to listen to my stammering for a few minutes and then while scribbling asked, ‘What are you doing to make her behave that way?’ — Alan’
However, thanks to campaigns, awareness has been spreading about battered husbands, and in North America research into the situation is ongoing and some crisis centres are now specifically geared towards men.
There is a Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women, which is staffed 24 hours a day and takes calls from any type of victim or those concerned that abuse is taking place, and can refer battered men to social and supportive services.
A worldwide problem
What is clear is that the problem of domestic abuse and violence affecting both men and women in equal measure is prevalent in all societies and cultures whatever their level of development. However, one country that stands out is Bali, as I learnt during a visit there in 2017, during discussion with our host Wayan Bagi, owner of the Van Karning bungalows in a coastal village in the north of the island, Pemuteran, where we were staying. He was very engaged socially, being a member of the banjar, the equivalent of a village council which has great autonomy in running the affairs of the village, and so was aware of the grassroots realities of traditional Balinese society. He confidently affirmed that there was no eve teasing or sexual harassment let alone aggression of Balinese women, who were protected within the family fold and the community as well.
When we asked him the reason for this, his simple and forthright answer was that we believe in karma: if we ill-treat anybody, we will reap the consequences in our next life, and we want to avoid that. And a different interlocutor told us that there is also another credo that guides the Balinese: do not miss an opportunity to do good to anyone, for you never know whether another opportunity will come by. A further principle that they practised was respect and acceptance of others as deserving their rightful place in society.
But we are not as lucky as Bali, and must therefore learn from the experience of other jurisdictions which have adopted measures to deal with the crisis and adapt them in our context. For that to happen, we need to have reliable statistics and an appropriate mechanism of collecting them so that victims are not stigmatised and are therefore not reluctant to come forward and report. We would thereby also establish whether the anecdotal accounts heard about battered men are borne out by facts.
But maybe we also need a cultural revival inspired by the Balinese model; we should be ready to learn from anywhere.
* Published in print edition on 20 September 2019