Certainly not love

– Angele Deguara –

There are those among us who live in constant fear of those they love, dreading the next humiliating experience that will continue to erode their self-esteem, their confidence, their well-being, their peace of mind, their family, their individuality, their very self. They feel helpless and afraid of making their loved one angry because they know the consequences even if last time they were promised it wouldn’t happen again.

On May 21, the government signed the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. This is another positive step in the fight against domestic violence. Another initiative by the Council of Europe in its endeavour to liberate Europe from violence against women and domestic violence, a herculean task, to be sure, but one that we should all strive for with determination. Thus, it is important for the government to take the necessary steps for its ratification and eventual implementation.

So far, only Turkey has ratified the convention.

The convention distinguishes between violence against women and domestic violence because it recognises that, while men and boys may also be victims of domestic violence, women and girls are disproportionately affected as they are exposed to higher risks of gender-based violence. It is estimated that, in Malta, one in four women suffers some form of violence. Various cases of violent deaths suffered by women by their past or current partners or husbands also attest to this.

Children also suffer either directly or else because of the traumatic experience of witnessing their parents hurting each other or one parent hurting the other parent, often repeatedly.

Violence also takes place within same-sex relationships, an aspect that is recognised by the convention.

Since victims of violence come from all walks of life, the convention urges governments to protect the rights of victims of violence without discrimination on any grounds such as sex, race, age, marital status, sexual orientation, social origin and religion.

Although the image the concept of domestic violence often conjures is that of a male aggressor beating his wife or girlfriend black and blue in a fit of drunken rage, violence is multi-faceted and is not always so axiomatic. This is not only because most violence takes place behind closed doors but also because physical violence is only one part of the bigger picture.

Neither does it always culminate in a serious beating. Pushing, shoving, biting, kicking and punching also count as physical violence. Violence may also involve throwing, breaking and smashing personal items, hurting pets, and putting the other person’s life in danger, for example, by driving dangerously fast in order to instil fear. Emotional abuse also hurts and can have devastating psychological effects. The perpetrator may use scary or threatening tactics, may belittle the victim, making her/him feel useless, inadequate, stupid or even insane.

Intimate violence involves raping the victim, making her/him participate in sexual acts involuntarily or even unconsciously. The aggressor may demand sex from his/her partner while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Others are forced into prostitution. Forced sex is a form of abuse and a crime even if it takes place within marriage.

Domestic violence may also take the form of social abuse. There are those who are not allowed to go out on their own; whose partner monitors their every move; who are accused of cheating without any basis; who are not allowed to wear certain clothes or make-up; who are not allowed to choose their friends or to invite them over to their home; who are even cut off from their family.

Violence may also be spiritual, where religion is used as a form of control such as when a person is not allowed to practise her/his faith or when someone is subjected to abuse or pain in the name of religion.

Others are abused financially, forced to be dependent on their partner; are not allowed to earn their own money; are forced to do things against their will for money; have their possessions sold or gambled without their permission and do not have any control over money matters.

None of this should be confused with love.

There are many who suffer in silence. There are others who seek help. However, domestic violence is frequently under-reported due to stigma, fear or lack of trust in support and legal structures.

Alternattiva Demokratika recognises the steps that have already been taken to address this social scar. The Domestic Violence Act of 2006, which set up the Commission on Domestic Violence and Aġenzija Appoġġ, was certainly crucial.

The Church also does its bit.

However, there are still a lot of issues that need to be addressed to ensure that victims are protected from their aggressors and helped to rebuild their lives. Professionals at Appoġġ are overworked and not adequately equipped with the necessary support structures to help both victims and aggressors effectively. We also need to raise more awareness through educational and media structures and to work towards the eradication of stereotyped notions about women and men and the achievement of true equality.

The Aġenzija Appoġġ helpline is 179.

The author, a sociologist, is spokesperson  for social policy and civil rights of Alternattiva Demokratika, the Green party.