A version of this article was published in The Straits Times on December 6 2017
This is an unusual counselling group even for Sudha Nair, the social work veteran who founded PAVE, Singapore’s pioneer family violence agency. All but one of the eight women in the room are unmarried and were battered by their boyfriends. The eighth married her abuser.
They have been meeting Dr Nair weekly at the Ang Mo Kio agency to tell their stories, cry, embrace one another and sometimes even laugh at the absurdity of some of the situations they landed in. This is no gathering of meek women with few options. Aged between 20 and their early 30s, all appear articulate and confident. More than half have tertiary qualifications, including one woman who is a doctor and another who is a lawyer. It is hard to imagine any of them allowing a man to bully and hit them, but all of them did.
For between four months and three years, they lived with their boyfriends and were subjected repeatedly to physical attacks on top of being abused verbally, having vulgarities hurled at them and being controlled in extreme ways, right down to having the men decide what they wore, whom they met or spoke to on the phone, whom they befriended on Facebook and, for one woman, when she could go to the toilet.
Their boyfriends include two doctors, two businessmen, a fitness instructor and a couple of fulltime national servicemen. The details of their experiences are frightening not only for revealing the things men do to exert control over their girlfriends, but also the willingness of women to tolerate it all, believing mistakenly that this is what it means to be loved.
You would think that smart single women might find it easier than married women with children to bolt from men who use violence, but that clearly isn’t the case. So why would an unmarried young woman stay after being attacked once, twice and then, regularly? “Almost all of them say they really loved their boyfriends, hoped to marry them and believed their love could change the men,” Dr Nair says. “One woman said, ‘If I love him hard enough, perhaps I could love away his violence’.”
It’s an unrealistic optimism PAVE’s social workers are familiar with from nearly two decades of dealing with domestic violence. Countless married women have described how they went ahead and married the boyfriends who battered them, hoping that love, marriage and children would change the men. Instead, they suffered violence for years afterwards.
PAVE has always seen unmarried teenage girls and young women who described dating violence or being battered while in live-in relationships, and until now all were counselled individually. Dr Nair decided to start a group for singles this year after several unmarried women appeared at around the same time, and because group work has proven successful with married clients. “This is a powerful way to get victims to support each other, understand quickly that they are not alone, and get them to learn ways to avoid being abused again,” says Dr Nair. The ongoing weekly meetings have helped the participants to make sense of what their boyfriends did to them, and it’s different for each woman.
Melinda was in her early 30s when she reconnected with a former schoolmate, Jon. Both were now professionals, and they were together for a year and a half, including about five months when she lived with him. She noticed the red flags early. He would get incensed over small matters, fly into a rage while driving if another motorist got in his way, and scream at people over the phone.
The first time he attacked her physically, he grabbed and punched her in the stomach and she had blue-black bruises down one arm from trying to fend him off. “It was horrifying to me, because nobody had ever done this to me before,” she says. She did not leave him. “He would look at my bruises afterwards and say, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ And he’d cry, say sorry and promise to change.”
Jon was also a serial cheat, and that became a trigger for fights and more beatings until the relationship finally broke down. Melinda now believes she was too soft-hearted and quick to forgive him. “Nobody is bad 24/7 and it was possible to fall back on my good memories with him and carry on,” she explains.
Dhershini, 20, the youngest in the group and still a student, has an 11-month-old son with her 21-year-old boyfriend Jason, who has just completed fulltime national service. She is torn by conflicting feelings about him. “He is really a very nice guy who cares for people and animals,” she says. But he also has a drinking problem, anger issues, disrespects everyone including his own mother, gets into brawls with strangers and was arrested for being a nuisance while drunk.
He has slapped, punched and pushed Dhershini many times during their two-year relationship, including in public, in front of their friends and when she was five months’ pregnant. Twice, she blacked out. “He can apologise so well,” she says with a laugh, when asked why she stayed with him through all that. They were preparing to get married on Nov 30 but the other women in the group persuaded Dhershini to think hard. She called off the wedding, but has not yet given up on becoming his wife. “I always hope he will change and become better, and learn to control his anger,” she says. “If he doesn’t change, I don’t know what will happen.”
After six weeks of group counselling, advertising agency copywriter Rachel, 25, was ready to tell the world what happened to her during her whirlwind relationship with a 33-year-old doctor she got to know via an online dating application. They met, liked each other at first sight, and became an item instantly.
Two weeks into the relationship, he punched and stomped on her so hard, she was left bleeding and bruised all over. “I was shocked and traumatised,” she recalls. “But he was so apologetic and full of remorse afterwards. He bought me flowers, and said it wouldn’t happen again.” She continued seeing him, and the abuse did not stop.
Then came the day he flew into a rage and attacked her with a ferocity she had never experienced before, because he wanted to have sex and she said no. He punched her in the face, smashed her head against the wall, pulled her by the hair to prevent her from escaping, choked her and yelled obscenities at her through it all. “I could not breathe, I could not get away, I thought I was going to die at the hands of the man I loved,” she recalls.
She suffered a broken nose and left hand, multiple fractures in her facial bones and eye sockets, bleeding in her brain and her eyes were puffed and bloodshot for weeks. Doctors inserted metal implants in her cheekbone and hand. “I was in hospital and I kept saying I still loved him,” she recalls. “Then a friend came and grilled me about every aspect of my relationship. That was when I woke up and realised what had happened to me.”
She made a police report. Last month (Nov 25) she wrote an account of what her ex-boyfriend did to her and posted it on her blog, with two pictures of her bloodied, horribly misshapen face that are too graphic to reproduce. The photos were selfies taken three weeks after the assault. “You can’t imagine what I looked like earlier,” she says.Friends were shocked to realise what she went through. Now Rachel wants other girls and unmarried women to know too. “Many victims of violence are embarrassed about being repeatedly slapped, punched and kicked by the person we love the most, but why should we be the ones who feel humiliated?”
Raising awareness is hard enough. But helping unmarried victims of violence is a challenge, because Singapore’s laws do not provide them the same protection that married women have. Under the Women’s Charter, married women can obtain Personal Protection Orders and Domestic Exclusion Orders to force their husbands stop the abuse or keep away. Women can apply for these protection orders easily at PAVE, through a video link to the Family Justice Court. The court can order husbands to attend mandatory counselling, and PAVE sees the men as well. Many make the effort to change, not least because they do not want to lose their wives, children and homes.
Unmarried women cannot apply for protection orders. A victim of violence may file a police report, as Rachel did. The police will then investigate and decide if the matter is serious enough to be treated as a criminal case under the Penal Code, in which case the alleged abuser is arrested and charged. However, if the police decide that the case is “non-arrestable”, the complainant may be advised to file a magistrate’s complaint instead. This is a tedious option rarely chosen by victims, who go away feeling the police do not take their complaints seriously.
Dr Nair’s concern is that unmarried victims receive no protection from their abusers while waiting for police investigations to conclude, whereas the protection order is effective in stopping the violence immediately in the majority of cases. When a married woman obtains a protection order, her husband can continue living in the family home but he must stop his violent behaviour or he can be hauled before a judge. If he continues to be a threat, the wife can obtain a Domestic Exclusion Order which bars him from entering the home. Men who ignore these orders can end up jailed. More helpfully, the protection order results in the Family Justice Court sending both husband and wife for counselling. The victims learn to survive and make the changes necessary to avoid violence. Although most men go reluctantly when ordered to attend counselling, those who are motivated to keep their families together do gain from learning to stop choosing violence.
These options are not available to unmarried women and men in violent relationships. Singapore also has the more recent Protection from Harassment Act (POHA), but it is mostly not helpful to unmarried people dealing with violence. The 2014 law covers everything from cyberbullying to stalking, bullying and sexual harassment outside of an intimate relationship. It was not meant to cover domestic violence, already provided for in the Women’s Charter. “If you’re unmarried and experiencing violence in your relationship, you need immediate help that comes from the Women’s Charter through the protection order. POHA is available to some, but takes a longer time and the process is much more drawn out,” says Dr Nair.
In PAVE’s experience, few women make police reports, and even fewer men are punished for assaulting girlfriends. There is no compelling these men to confront the reasons why they use violence, and they learn none of the ways to keep violence out of their future relationships. The agency would like to see unmarried victims of violence have the same access to protection orders as married people. This will mean widening the definition of domestic violence in the Women’s Charter to include unmarried people in dating and live-in relationships, or looking at other laws that could include these provisions.
“It just doesn’t make sense to know that unmarried girls and women are being beaten badly by their boyfriends but they receive no protection and the men get no help either,” says Dr Nair. “We need the law to provide speedy and effective help to everyone in a violent relationship. We know that men who use violence to control women will not stop unless they are forced to receive help.”
Except for Rachel, the names of the women have been changed at their request. Alan John is a member of PAVE’s management council.
HELPLINES Those seeking help with dating and domestic violence can go to any of three Family Violence Specialist Centres:
- PAVE Block 211 Ang Mo Kio Avenue 3,#01-1446 Singapore 560211, Tel: 65550390
- TRANS SAFE Bedok Block 410 Bedok North Avenue2, #01-58, Singapore 460410, Tel: 64499088
- PROJECT START, Block 7A, Commonwealth Avenue, #01-672, Singapore 140007, Tel: 64761482