“All oppression is connected!” Those are the words of Jamaican poet and political activist Staceyann Chin. Her words run deep for me. Her statement implies, rightfully, that oppression in a society is a systemic affliction. Only recently have the dots connected for me at how profoundly true her words are. Not too long ago I wrote a letter to the Guyana Chronicle about my own excruciating experiences growing up as a gay Guyanese. I know what oppression feels like. I know what hate feels like. I know the lasting impact of psychological trauma. So when I read local news each day and see how prevalent domestic violence is against women and children, I don’t read it with detachment. I feel their pain. I know all too well the prevalence of alcoholism, domestic violence and emotional assault that pervades Guyanese society. I also know people who have risen above their own mistreatment and refused to perpetuate it.
Recent articles in the papers have highlighted how terrible the problem really is. Violence against women and children is not only growing in frequency, but in brutality. The increased violence in society seems to be desensitizing us to it, or redefining our definition. The slap that you rationalize isn’t domestic violence, is! It can no longer be hidden behind closed doors. It has grown to such proportions, it threatens to consume the sanctity and pride of family. There are now records to dispel any doubt that this is the case. The 2007 US Country Report on Human Rights practices estimated that 1 in 3 women experience domestic violence in Guyana (www.state.gov). On January 17th of this year the Kaieteur News reported that 50% of women experience domestic violence in our country. Help and Shelter confirms that the frequency and intensity of violence against women and children is fulminant. A 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report states that almost 1 in 5 women in Guyana are subjected to, “punching, kicking, or other physical violence by an adult household member in comparison to the [Caribbean region] average of [about 1 in 10]. Anyone who is disgusted or in denial can see the cold, hard numbers on the internet at www.refworld.org: search ‘Guyana Domestic Violence.’
I find a lot of people assume their own actions don’t cross the line of domestic violence. I find people have the tendency to think of themselves as inherently not capable of crossing the line. So what is domestic violence? According to Help and Shelter, domestic violence occurs when a person attempts or intends to physically or psychologically overpower, control or dominate another. It is important to note that destroying property, humiliation, verbal threats, stalking, name-calling and deprivation of human contact all constitute abuse. Financial control through withholding money and ignoring the distress of another are all forms of domestic violence. It encompasses the idea that if the victim feels under duress from a consistently unequal relationship between herself and her partner, then that partner is culpable for being abusive. This definition also implies that there needs to be open, non-coercive and honest communication between spouses for boundaries to be shared and acknowledged. Domestic violence also includes child abuse, another pathologically prevalent affliction in Guyana. If you look into the eyes of your family and see anxiety, not affection, then what you are doing needs intervention.
With our history of corporal punishment, it is easy to blur the lines between discipline and abuse. As in the definition of domestic violence, abuse occurs when one partner is exerting distressing control over another. If the treatment of a child is affecting that child’s development, then it is likely abusive. Not all individuals are alike. What is felt as punishment in one child might likely induce psychological scars in another child. Being a parent and spouse takes effort. Many people like to give themselves a free pass by thinking that their victim can shake it off or needs to be tough. That’s an ignorant fable and there are cold, hard numbers to prove it.
Domestic violence is a public health concern because it not only affects people psychologically, but biologically. This is why it spreads. Mistreatment becomes ingrained in the brains of people. In children, mistreatment changes their brain development. Studies at McGill University in Canada by Michael Meaney, at the University of Alabama-Birmingham by David Sweatt, at the Rockefeller University by Bruce McEwen and many others have consistently shown abuse, whether verbal, physical, by neglect or by other psychological means physically changes the way the brain functions. If a woman is pregnant and experiences abuse, her stress response permanently changes her child because pregnancy adapts the child to be ready for the environment the mother is living in. So the unborn child’s brain is programmed to feel stress more intensely. These same changes cause learning deficits because just as when someone is angry, and they can’t think straight, a person whose brain is physically altered to feel more stress can’t think straight. The abusive parent is condemning the child to a lifetime of chronic stress. Both male and female children are affected by this biological mechanism called epigenetic modification. A web search for ‘abuse and epigenetics’ will be enlightening.
Male children are known to suffer greatly from these types of stress, perpetuating this cycle of violence as their brains are altered to feel distressed which causes them to treat others as enemies and abuse alcohol to deal with the distress. All oppression really is connected. Female children who have these brain changes have been shown to pass it on to their children and grandchildren because their eggs are also modified. Domestic violence leads to an entire society being progressively abusive as is currently being observed in Guyana. This reality is new to the field of abuse and trauma ‒ behaviours that cause intense or chronic stress on mothers and children become biological and are passed on from generation to generation. Studies show that the consequences are terrible: intervention doesn’t seem to erase some of these changes. It might take many generations to reverse. In other words, if a grandfather is abusive, but his daughter was adopted and treated well, her children will still suffer the consequences of their mother’s prenatal and postnatal stress.
It’s that serious. Abused mothers feel more stress and are prone to act out on their own children just as men do, but also don’t feel the strong maternal instinct other women feel. So not only are children carrying brain changes which make them feel stress more intensely, but they potentially have parents who find it difficult to be nurturing.
So if every man and woman is the product of abuse, how do we stop this cycle of violence from consuming our society? I really begins with great effort on the side of social institutions and especially a great, personal commitment by individuals.
Too many fathers don’t take responsibility for their own internal turmoil and end up taking it out on others. It is about personal responsibility and self-control. One’s own turmoil should be dealt with internally and with trained help, not by lashing out.
Every father can be Herculean. It takes effort and commitment and I’ve seen it made. My own father is the product of an abusive mother. Some of his siblings have dents in their heads from irons and pot spoons. I’ve seen many of them drown their internal turmoil in alcohol abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse and emotional abuse of wives and children. On the backdrop of this, I saw my father struggle within himself, and not take it out on those around him. He never drank alcohol, practised many stress-relieving activities and fought his demons. When I came out as gay, he made a Herculean effort to struggle with what it meant to have a gay son. An enormous feat for a Guyanese man with a background of poverty, abuse, and neglect.
Yet today, I have a father who is loving and whom I can speak with freely and openly. True, his struggles were sometimes consuming, but importantly, he did not continue the cycle of domestic violence and abuse. He took responsibility for his own emotions. His brother, my uncle, is another example of this effort, carrying his own struggles and mitigating them productively, making his legacy one of love and care. So I’ve seen the effort made, twice over.
There is no greater commitment to manhood than making the necessary sacrifices to protect the wellbeing of those around you. Domestic abuse is rampant and virulent in Guyana, and needs a response that is quick and committed. Abuse doesn’t stay with the victim, it is passed on for generations not only through learnt behaviour, but biologically. This makes it difficult to resolve. It explains the perpetuation of abuse, and its relationship with alcohol and drug abuse. There are many organizations in Guyana that offer intervention for both the abuser and abused.
There is Help and Shelter and Red Thread. Both organizations are desperate for funding because their services cannot meet demand with the increasing prevalence and intensity of domestic violence. Please donate. Help stamp out this cycle of violence that is threatening family structure, children’s educational success and polluting their bodies with imprints of stress and violence. I plead with local churches and public institutions to retool themselves to advocate against hate and violence, and support relief organizations. All oppression is connected, and it will take great social coordination and commitment to eradicate them.