Why stay? A closer look at domestic violence

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Anne Raj looks at the power dynamics at play to understand why some women find themselves unable to leave abusive marriages.

Jane (not her real name), in her late twenties, is a mother of two. She used to be a bright and bubbly person, but is now frail and weak.

Her husband would beat her every time he came back drunk, she said. At times he would shove her against the wall.

She would just wipe her tears hopelessly and cry herself to sleep.

The next day, he would apologise: “I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt you. You know I love you, right.”

I have often wondered why women don’t leave abusive marriages, instead of tolerating the abuse.

What is domestic violence? It is a crime committed by someone who abuses a family member – whether physically, sexually, verbally or psychologically.

I used to think domestic violence victims had a simple and obvious choice. When a man hits his wife, she should leave, logically speaking. If she stays on, then she would be partly responsible for any further abuse or violence inflicted.

Recently, however, I realised that real domestic violence rarely plays out like this. It is not black and white, and leaving is not an easy option.

Many people have a misconception as to how easy it is to leave an abusive situation. But the victims have their own reasons, one of which is fear.

Research conducted by Durham University found that fear is often a key reason for not leaving, and this fear is rational and justified.

The initial stage of domestic violence – the sense of being stunned and traumatised – leads to fear of the violence being repeated. Some victims are threatened that they will be killed, making them afraid of leaving or of losing their children.

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Another reason is economic security, especially if the abusive partner has control over the victim’s economic resources or if the victim is financially dependent on the abuser.

This dependence weakens the victim’s capacity to be independent; instead she is forced to rely on the abuser. This alone gives the abuser power and control over the victim.

If the victim chooses to leave, she would not be able to support herself or her children as they would be financially unstable – unless they have strong support from her family.

If the abuser has a stronger financial background, he would stand a better chance of succeeding in the legal battlefield. He would able to hire experienced lawyers to prove that he is a better provider for the children.

Hence the victim in such a situation invariably remains in the marriage as she is not able to afford basic survival needs outside of it.

Furthermore, the sociocultural expectations are for the victim to “normalise” and tolerate the domestic violence. Society generally has unrealistic expectations over the gender role of a woman: she is expected to be faithful, obedient, docile; she is expected to accommodate her husband and endure a certain degree of suffering for the good of the family. Otherwise, she would be seen as a deviant or unfit wife. Marriages tend to be based on patriarchal principles, and equality is not a central value of such marriages.

The media – news outlets, magazines, advertisements and social media – too contribute to normalising domestic violence through their use of sexist and offensive humour.

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It is important for society to understand that under the Domestic Violence Act 1994, domestic violence is no longer a private matter but a societal concern. It is a crime under the Penal Code. (Malaysian women’s organisations lobbied for almost a decade before the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1994.)

Today, I am able to have a different perspective of domestic violence. I do not judge victims for not leaving. My recent exposure has allowed me to understand how deep and twisted the root of domestic violence can be. It is not possible for one who is not a part of this abuse to fathom the power dynamics often at play in an abusive relationship.

I hope more light can be shed on this epidemic of domestic violence, which is often blanketed in darkness. Society should be educated to not indulge in victim blaming, while victims should be made aware of their rights.

Anne Raj recently started work with a women’s group in Penang. She then attended an Aliran writers’ workshop with the theme “Writing for Change in New Malaysia”, where she wrote this piece.

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