Social workers are in close contact with people; it’s the nature of their job. But when migrant survivors of domestic violence seek help, they often perceive social workers to be representatives of a more powerful group. Thus, survivors may be wary of trusting social workers, or fear losing their children, being reported to immigration authorities, or blamed for what happened. To engage with a growing number of migrants and minorities today, social workers need cross-cultural competence – the ability to work effectively across cultures.
While some of us are privileged to be shielded from it, the truth remains — violence in Malta is rampant. From popular songs to neighbours’ conversations, the normalisation of abuse is shaping our communities and our basic understanding of healthy relationships. Words by Cassi Camilleri.
The theme of this edition of THINK magazine is meant to evoke feelings of belongingness, identity, warmth, and solidarity. Our home is usually a place associated with these positive feelings: a place where I can be myself and, in a safe environment, develop into the me I want to be. This is something valuable, something which we should safeguard passionately. At the same time, as a social worker, I know many people for whom ‘home’ does not have such positive connotations.
The people that come to mind are abuse victims, children and adults living with domestic violence. For them, ‘home’ means suffering, often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness. Others find ‘home’ a difficult concept. Think of people who cannot make ends meet, who have difficulty paying their rent, who cannot afford to buy their own house because of high property prices. Then there are those who can no longer live in their own house because they are unable to look after themselves, be it because of old age or health issues. There are members of broken families who have difficulty identifying their home, asylum seekers who left home behind, and people who have lost a family member and now associate ‘home’ with sadness.
Everybody needs a place where he or she feels ‘held’ and safe enough to develop his or her potential. But if ‘home’ does not fit this bill, where will this environment be?
This is where a network of social solidarity, both formal and informal, comes into play. Alternatives for people with issues related to the concept of ‘home’ include foster placements, shelters, or other residential facilities. But these services are tasked with much more than providing mere accommodation. They need to create an environment which meets the needs of the persons who live there. They need to provide a safe space for people to come in, be themselves, and develop their potential.
For those who don’t need to move out of their current home, options include support and professional interventions, such as family therapy, to deal with the sadness associated around the home, or to improve the dynamics within it. Social service providers in Malta and Gozo carry a lot of responsibility. Unfortunately, the supply does not always meet demand, and some people have to wait considerably before being able to move into more comfortable and nurturing placements—sometimes while living in abusive environments. In other situations, the necessary support is not readily available, as in the cases of asylum seekers and homeless people who need a roof over their head.
While formal support is important and necessary, all Maltese citizens need to share the responsibility and offer a helping hand without judgement. That way, Malta will be able tonurture communities that work together to create ‘homes’ which cherish everyone, respecting their dignity and worth and encouraging them to flourish.
Domestic violence is a social issue scarring our communities. It is also on the rise. According to the CrimeMalta Annual Crime Review for 2016, there were ‘only’ 450 reports in 2008 compared to the 1272 instances in 2016, marking a jump of 183%.
Paradoxically, increasing reports of domestic violence are a good sign. They clearly indicate that people are more aware of domestic violence, that they recognise it, and find it unacceptable. Another positive is that the media is highlighting these cases. Domestic violence against women also has a lasting impact on children. Once exposed to intimate partner violence, the ramifications ripple through their lives both in the short term and when they become adults (Sammut Scerri, 2015).
According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, one in three European women experience physical and/or sexual violence by a partner. In Malta 15% of women over the age of 15 have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of a partner. Looking at the National Prevalence Study conducted in 2011 by the Commission for Domestic Violence, 26.5% of women have experienced one or more acts of violence by a partner, which includes, physical, emotional, or sexual violence. Probably one of the most worrying facts, according to the same study, is that 54% of women who have experienced violence did not seek assistance. Domestic violence significantly impacts female survivors who are low income, unemployed, or inactive.
Malta has to act, and the Faculty for Social Wellbeing (University of Malta) has already recommended a number of action points. First on the list is a one-stop-shop with a multidisciplinary response team, specially trained to address the situation holistically. This team involves police working with legal, social work, health, and psychological support. We also suggested a well–resourced National Action Plan, in-line with the Istanbul Convention, that is comprehensive and evidence-based. This would work hand in hand with a national programme on relationship education, targeting different age groups and genders, addressing gender stereotypes and issues around power and control. We also believe that court sentencing needs to be significantly harsher to reflect the seriousness of the crimes. Similarly, protection orders and treatment orders need to lead to significant punishments if broken. Finally, we must also work to alleviate the financial burden of domestic violence victims. Social assistance cheques have to be issued promptly, social housing must be made available, and child support contributions cannot be interrupted.
Domestic violence is no longer a private matter, but a community responsibility. For the good of everyone, it is an issue that needs to be addressed by academia, civil society, and the state in a coherent and well thought-out manner.
Sammut Scerri, C., Living with contradictions of love and violence: A grounded theory study of women’s understanding of their childhood experiences of domestic violence, Doctoral dissertation, University of Surrey, 2015.
Back in the old days it was assumed by most that if you had male sexual characteristics you were a MAN and as such your nature was to be macho, brave, and aggressive and bring in the money for the family; and of course, if you had female sexual characteristics, you were a WOMAN, and as such your nature was to be sensitive, emotional, nurturing, and an ‘angel’ in the home.
Then we discovered ‘gender’, i.e. not the physical/biological characteristics, but the social and cultural meanings attached to being a woman or a man, our learnt behaviour. At this stage, it became clear that having male sexual characteristics in itself did not necessarily make one incapable of holding a baby or wiping up vomit. At the same time, it was now agreed that possessing female sexual characteristics did not necessarily make one unfit for public life, employment outside the home, or leadership (political or otherwise).
And we embraced these changes with gusto! Now, we thought, women (and men, or other) could be whatever they wished to be! We were no longer held back by our sexual characteristics, by being seen as ‘woman’ (or ‘man’). This was a big step forward for ‘gender’ equality.
Somewhere along the line however, ‘woman’ disappeared…
In the past, we spoke about women’s liberation, women’s rights, feminism, equality for women, women’s studies, violence against women. When we talked about domestic violence, what we meant was intimate partner violence perpetrated far more by men against women.
Nowadays we speak about human rights, gender equality, gender studies, gender-based violence, family violence, and when we speak about domestic violence we get told; ‘What about the men? What about the children? What about older adults?’ When we speak about feminism, we are labelled passé or extremists.
Effectively, ‘woman’ has become invisible. The still-dominant patriarchal discourse has succeeded, with the help of all of us, in neutralising ‘woman’ and camouflaging this as ‘progress’.
If we had indeed achieved ‘gender equality’, if women’s rights as human rights were really being upheld, if we had eliminated violence against women, then this would be right and proper… But have we?
My answer to that is, of course, as you would expect, a resounding NO, we have not! And making ‘woman’ invisible once more will not help us achieve this!
Photo by Steven Levi Vella from Artemisia: 100 Remarkable Women, a project by Network of Young Women Leaders