The Taboo of Domestic Violence

One of the great privileges of being a paediatric doctor is the frontline seat we have on humanity. Of course we only see this great variety of human life and get to share in their stories because the NHS is still at the point of need free. We get to see how the very poor live their lives and also how the more affluent live theirs. Stereotypes abound within medicine and on the whole they ring true but we doctors and other frontline staff are constantly amazed and shocked by the unexpected. Life is certainly unpredictable as a doctor in the NHS. This is one of the reasons why I love the NHS so.

One of the greatest sorrows I have faced is when I come across a mother and or child who is being abused by the man who is supposed to love her and protect her from the rest of the world. One of our babies has been taken into foster care recently because the mother is being abused and has chosen that option for herself and her baby. I wanted to weep (still do) because I cannot imagine the horror that the mother has gone through and must be going through to carry a baby to term, labour to deliver her beautiful baby and then feel she must give that baby up. Heart breaking! In this case, the abuse is on-going and the father of the child not only threatened the mother with further abuse, he has threatened to kill the baby if she takes it home. Isn’t there something we can do for her I hear you ask? Of course there are ways in which we can help her. We have offered her every viable option including the one she has taken: giving up her child for fostering or adoption. She weighed up her options and came to a decision to give up the baby. Some of us are worried this is not a rational decision but unfortunately, within the law as she is an adult without any mental illness to cloud her judgement, we have to accept her decision whether it appears rational or wise or not.

Unfortunately, this case is not unique. In my 4 years of paediatrics, I have seen far too many cases of domestic violence and its many victims. 1 is too many but there have been dozens in my short time in the NHS. Bearing in mind that I have only worked in 7 NHS Hospitals and have seen but a tiny snippet of what is going on out there, this is a massive problem that is rarely talked about. Even within paediatrics and obstetrics where this is a major concern, we only talk about it when we get a case. Then it gets filed in the back of our minds until the next unfortunate case. Today I want to highlight the evil that is domestic violence and in my little way encourage anyone directly or indirectly affected to do something about it. What we need is more awareness and everyone who can do something to do a little bit so we can get some change happening.

As you may know, my mother is a feminist so I have always been aware of domestic violence in its many guises and how ugly it can get. As a young feminist, it was always one of those issues I was passionate about and I even wrote a radio drama aged 14 on the topic which got aired in Lagos in 2000. From a very early age, my mother taught me to have zero tolerance to domestic violence. I have always said that the minute a man raises his hand to hit me, unless it is in retaliation after I hit him first, that relationship is done and dusted. Some of you may think this is extreme but if you knew what I know, you would understand that zero tolerance is the best way to go about snuffing out domestic violence.

In medical school (here in Birmingham), I opted to do a module on Domestic Violence in my 4th year of study. It was a short module but the quality of teaching delivered voluntarily by the staff from the local Women’s Aid was fantastic. It was sobering to realise that the knowledge I had from what was happening in my hometown in Yola was mirrored in Britain. Britain may proclaim how forward thinking it is but just the same with Yola in Nigeria, their response to domestic violence is still inadequate and there is very little actual protection for the victims. Majority of the work is done by the voluntary sector trying to safeguard those who seek for help. By the very nature of this service provision, victims do not have access to help and unfortunately, many will continue to be victims until they end up in intensive care or even worse in early graves.

Here are some facts and statistics from Women’s Aid (http://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic_violence_topic.asp?section=0001000100220041&sectionTitle=Domestic+violence+%28general%29) by way of introduction:

  • Domestic violence is any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. It is not just physical violence. It can be verbal, sexual or neglect. It can be against a partner, a child or an older relative.
  • The vast majority of the victims of domestic violence are women and children, and women are also considerably more likely to experience repeated and severe forms of violence, and sexual abuse.
  • Women may experience domestic violence regardless of ethnicity, religion, class, age, sexuality, disability or lifestyle.  Domestic violence can also occur in a range of relationships including heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender relationships, and also within extended families.
  • The majority of abusers are men, but in other respects, they vary: abusers come from all walks of life, from any ethnic group, religion, class or neighbourhood, and of any age.
  • Abusers choose to behave violently to get what they want and gain control. Their behaviour may originate from a sense of entitlement which is often supported by sexist, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory attitudes.
  • The estimated total cost of domestic violence to society in monetary terms is £23 billion per annum. This figure includes an estimated £3.1 billion as the cost to the state and £1.3 billion as the cost to employers and human suffering cost of £17 billion.
  • The first incident of domestic violence occurred after one year or more for 51% of the women surveyed and between three months and one year for 30%.
  • Amongst a group of pregnant women attending primary care in East London, 15% reported violence during their pregnancy. Nearly 40% reported that violence started whilst they were pregnant, whilst 30% who reported violence during pregnancy also reported they had at some time suffered a miscarriage as a result (Coid, 2000).

The commonest question people who have not been victims ask is ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ To understand the answer, you have to try to understand how they become victims in the first place. The typical victim starts out as a happy vivacious young woman, often pretty with very social personalities. They meet and fall in love with a man who at first glance is perfect. Often these men are older, more experienced who charm the girl with their confidence and assertiveness. Once the young woman/girl is ‘in love’ and moves in with the abuser, he (often he but not always) will begin to isolate the girl from her friends and family. It often starts innocently but becomes more pervasive. Often the man will complain about some character flaw in one friend and systematically will find a way of making her cut ties with majority if not all of her social support network. He will often start with small acts of violence like physical restraint if she wants to go out and he doesn’t approve, seizing her shoes so cannot leave the house or calling her ugly when she dresses in a way that she would normally and in the way he would have previously approved. Then once he starts to isolate her, he will chip away at her confidence and withhold praise so that she begins to modify her behaviour to please him and to get approval. To please him, she often has to isolate herself from her friends and family and cater to his every whim. Despite that, he will find fault with all she does and he will start by criticising her. Eventually, he will physically punish her for not doing what she should. Mentally, because of the slow insidious way of grooming her into becoming a victim, she starts to believe that whenever he abuses her verbally or physically it is because she has failed to do something.

Eventually, she is truly a victim and she stops to see herself as a victim and him as an abuser. She begins to blame herself for everything that befalls her and see him as her saviour. Most will come to believe their abuse is an act of love. What it often takes for her to begin to see her thinking is faulty is either when she ends up in hospital because he has lost control and beaten her so badly that he ‘allows’ her to seek medical help or she has children or other family members she feels responsible for and they get harmed. Even then, these victims will often go back time and time again. Sadly, some will go back one too many time and end up dead. Or their child will end up dead or permanently damaged. Here are some statistics to back that fact:

  • Women are at greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner. (Lees, 2000)
  • 60% of the women in one study left the abuser because they feared that they would be killed if they stayed. A further 54% of women left the abuser because they said that they could see that the abuse was affecting their children and 25% of the women said that they feared for their children’s lives. (Humphreys & Thiara, 2002).
  • The British Crime Survey found that, while for the majority of women leaving the violent partner stopped the violence, 37% said it did not. 18% of those that had left their partner were further victimised by stalkingand other forms of harassment. 7% who left said that the worst incident of domestic violence took place after they had stopped living with their partner. (Walby & Allen, 2004).
  • 76% of separated women reported suffering post-separation violence (Humphreys & Thiara, 2002). Of these women:

– 76% were subjected to continued verbal and emotional abuse.

– 41% were subjected to serious threats towards themselves or their children.

– 23% were subjected to physical violence.

– 6% were subjected to sexual violence.

– 36% stated that this violence was ongoing.

Lest I forget, I will mention the even more invisible group: male victims of domestic violence. I was heartened to see a poster the other day in a public toilet (female) offering male victims some help. This is just as important because we know that many perpetrators of (domestic) violence were once victims their selves. The man might be the victim in some cases. Learn to expect the unexpected.

So what do I suggest? For anyone who reads this, please share so that we can raise some awareness. If you suspect anyone you know might be a victim, please talk to them and point them towards the Women’s Aid website for help. Do not allow your friend or sister or mother to isolate herself. If you feel you are being pushed away and this is out of character for your friend, please persevere and remain friends with them even if it is only from a distance. Do not cut all ties as you may be tempted to do. Lastly, be watchful. Personally and for everyone you love. If you suspect something is amiss, draw them closer and be there so that if they need help, you might be that link that keeps them real and potentially saves their lives. If you are with a partner who is exhibiting some of the behaviours above, talk to someone you trust about it and ask for help. This help could come from Women’s Aid or even a trusted friend. If you are in a place where Women’s Aid or similar do not exist, turn to friends and family and seek for help early. No man is worth losing your dignity, sanity, health or life for.

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