All these women are young enough to be my daughters and, one by one over the course of two hours, they tell me details of the horrible things their boyfriends did to them.
Afterwards, I am most distressed by Dhershini, the youngest in the group undergoing counselling at PAVE, Singapore’s pioneer domestic violence agency. I’ve been on PAVE’s management council for more than 10 years, hearing stories about Singapore’s battered women, scarred children and the men who do such lasting damage behind closed doors to the people closest to them.
But here’s Dhershini. Just 20, the mother of an 11-month-old baby boy, in training for a job she’ll ace because she has a bubbly, friendly personality and a lovely smile. She laughs, a shy giggle, when I ask why she stays with Jason, who is 21, has no job, but possesses a terrible temper, drinks too much, and has hit her repeatedly through their two years together, including while she was pregnant.
“Because I just love him,” she says simply.
She describes some of the awful things he did to her. Like that time he slammed her against the wall so hard, she passed out. Or the day he kept telling her she was a slut over and over and over again until she couldn’t stand it any more and, to shut him up, she blurted: “Yes, I’m a slut!” And she was shocked by how swiftly he pounced, punching her with all his might.
I ask: “Why didn’t you just run away from him?”
“Because I love him,” she says. Again and again.
Dhershini was among eight women attending group counselling at PAVE, and I spoke to them for an article The Straits Times published on December 10 2017. (I posted that earlier.) All their stories are awful for revealing the things men do to their girlfriends, but Dhershini’s struck me as especially sad because she is so young and because of the way she holds out hope that Jason will change. Then they can marry and make a happy life together with their son, and be a family.
I want her dreams to come true, but it’s going to be so hard. PAVE’s experience, from nearly 20 years of working with family violence and seeing thousands of women who married their abusive boyfriends, tells us the men don’t stop if they don’t get serious about not choosing violence. For too many women, marriage does not change the men. Nor do patience, the deepest well of love, or the willingness to put up with physical pain, years of suffering in silence and keeping it all secret. Until something really bad happens.
Dhershini had a way of relating the terrible things Jason did to her, before reminding herself and telling me that he also had a sweet and caring side. After two months of group counselling, she knew all the reasons why violence didn’t belong in anyone’s love story. But she could not let go of the hope of marrying Jason, the father of her child, a guy with a sweet side who could beat her senseless.
It will take a huge effort on Jason’s part to change. Men who use violence to gain control over the women in their lives are slow to give up the power they possess. To stop using violence, they have to unlearn deeply ingrained attitudes and practise new ways to respond when things don’t go their way. Most don’t change until their wives turn to the courts for help and the men are ordered to undergo counselling.
After The Straits Times ran the story about the smart, single women beaten by their boyfriends, some readers asked: What’s wrong with these women? I’d also asked them: Why did you stay so long? And I kept asking Dhershini: Why are you still considering marrying the guy? Why not leave, run, get away? Save yourself. Save your children.
But the real question isn’t why women stay. More of us should ask, and keep asking, why men choose violence in their relationships. How do boys and men learn that slapping, punching, kicking, slamming, stomping, pulling hair and a whole lot more are things to do to their girlfriends, partners, wives?
Jason got there before he turned 20. He found himself a girl who had his baby and never forgets his sweet side, despite the times he’s bashed the living daylights out of her. I want to hope that change will happen, that Dhershini, Jason and their baby will beat the odds. But it’s so distressing thinking about what happens if they don’t.
Valentine’s Day Helplines
PAVE marks Valentine’s Day every year with a Dating Violence outreach programme when its social workers visit schools and hold events to tell teenagers and young people that love does not mean putting up with a violent partner. If you know someone in an abusive relationship, take her or him to one of these 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