When a woman turns to violence, society often provides excuses for her: post-natal depression, pre-menstrual tension, eating disorders, menopause, provocation, self- defence… Many men will be sensitive to these problems in their partners, but they should not have to suffer violence as a consequence of them. In contrast, men are expected to take responsibility for their own violence and abuse.
When a woman is violent or abusive in a relationship, it is not necessarily assumed that she is a bad mother. If a man is violent towards his partner, it is automatically assumed that he is an unfit parent. The law generally presumes that the children will be better off with their mother. Consequently, the options for men seem to be to put up with the abuse or to leave the home. In law, a male victim faces two obstacles: firstly to prove that he is a victim, and secondly to ensure that his children are protected and do not also become victims. Men very often remain in an abusive relationship for the sake and protection of their children. Even when a man has proved that he is the victim, his only course of action may still seem to be to leave the home, becoming separated from his children and often experiencing difficulties in trying to obtain regular and realistic contact with them. Under these circumstances, he is being treated more like the perpetrator than the victim.
It is disturbing to realize that the improvements which have been made in the situation of female victims of domestic violence (including access to barring orders, etc.) have not automatically led to the same improvements for men in the same position. The vast majority of “recorded” incidents of domestic violence are of men on women. The only incidents of violence on men by their female partners which come to the attention of the authorities are near-fatal or fatal incidents. Although we seem as a society to be aware that male victims exist, they are treated flippantly, almost as a joke. Their plight is not viewed with the same sympathy as that of female victims. In reality, the male victim lives in fear, in isolation, feeling stigmatized, but society does not recognize this. The male victim is neglected because he does not conform to the stereotypical male image.
The effects of this form of the ‘double standard’ on the situation of male victims of domestic violence is similar to the by-now well publicized effects of domestic violence on women. Male victims too tend to react by staying silent, but in their case this is encouraged by factors such as the fear of ridicule and the realization that it is unlikely that their partners will be evicted. Indeed, once the matter is in legal hands, male victims often find that the chief concern of the courts is with the payment of maintainance and they may even lose access to their children. It seems now as if the law, seeking to uphold the mother-and-child unit, can only view the woman as victim, the man as perpetrator.
Recent studies show that children who experience violence in their families are much more likely to be violent in their own later intimate relationships, regardless of whether the violence in their family of origin was perpetrated by a man or a woman. It is not sufficient to say that it is ‘a woman’s problem’ – it is critically a children’s problem and a human problem. Until we examine the full picture, we are unlikely to achieve a balanced view and break the cycle of violence.
In December 1997, Amen, a voluntary Help-Line for men who are victims of domestic violence was set up in Navan, following the huge response to a national appeal for such victims to come forward and tell of their experience, and now also runs groups in Waterford, Monaghan, Dublin, Derry and Tipperary. Amen ran the first conference in the world on this subject in December 1998, in UCD, called ” The Silence is Over”, and it was warmly welcomed by people as varied as the Women’s Support Group of the Newtownabbey Community Development Agency, Justice Catherine McGuinness of the Family Court, Dr Gerry Byrne, Psychiatrist with the Charlemont Clinic, and Professor Vivienne Nathanson of the BMA Professional Resources & Research Group. As well as offering a Help-Line to victims, Amen runs support groups and works to increase public awareness about the issue, including lobbying the media. The organization aims to articulate the need for legal and legislative reform.
Since the Help-Line was established, calls from over 3,500 men have been received, ranging in age from 18 to 88 and from all walks of life. Many of the men who contact Amen are deeply depressed and feeling suicidal. They may be on sleeping tablets and anti-depressants. The injuries they describe include contusions, lacerations, abrasions, stabbings, kicking, biting, scratching, spitting, cigarette burns, pulling out tufts of hair, etc. Many cover up the causes of their injuries when presenting for medical attention, saying that they fell or injured themselves while working. They are subjected to emotional abuse as well. However, they do not have the ear of the caring agencies and social workers may regard them as ‘hen-pecked’ and ‘wimpish’, effectively reinforcing the abuse.
For many years now we have been told that the only victims of domestic abuse were women and children. There was a recent advertisement which said: “It is a crime to beat a woman.” But domestic violence is not just a ‘women’s issue’; it is a social issue, a family issue affecting men, women and children and it must be examined in this light.
Society does not have the right to discriminate against a victim of domestic abuse
because of their gender. The Amen Help-Line telephone number is 046-23718; email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Cleary is the founder and co-ordinator of Amen, which is a registered charity. She urgently needs assistance from volunteer counsellors and others to set up a national office, access to legal advice for victims, a funded help-line, a national survey, etc.