By Saieed Khalil
Author’s note: On Saturday June 25th, the University of Guyana’s Diploma of Social Work Class of 2014-2016 in collaboration with the Ministry of Social Protection, will be hosting a walk to raise awareness of domestic violence. The public is invited to assemble at the Bank of Guyana at 6.00 a.m. for a procession that will commence at 6.30 a.m. and culminate with a rally at Square of the Revolution. Participants are invited to wear red and purple. For more information, contact the event’s Public Relations Officer, A. Persaud at 654-5418.
I was on the balcony, the only logical place to be on a very warm tropical evening, when I heard her high pitched shriek of terror, at the same time I heard his all too familiar bark of aggression. The balcony lights were off, and the streetlights were dim, but the light on their outdoor wooden staircase landing shone just enough to show him dangling her precariously by her torso off the edge of it. Though most of my neighbors had by that time of the night turned in for the night, the glimmers of light peeking out of subtly drawn curtains gave away the fact that most of them were aware of what had come to be a customary commotion. And they, like me, stayed silent and did nothing.
Like most social, political and economic issues, the scourge of domestic violence finds its very deep roots in the psyche, culture and attitudes of our collective national being. Save for the work of a few courageous advocacy organizations, the indifference shown by myself and my neighbors is but a microcosm of the near absolute societal resigning to the notion that incidences of domestic violence are a “private matter between man and wife.” In addition to the chronic economic disadvantage women are at, whereby they are forced to rely on their male partners for sustenance, the lack of emotional and material support from their families and communities leaves them trapped in violence. The reasoning that the woman must endure her man’s violent outbursts is so entrenched that I have heard many an old aunty nearly brag about staying the course during the abusive phases of their marriages until their husbands ‘grew out of it’. Small wonder then that the police officers, court officials, medical professionals, social workers, and policymakers are as ill-prepared to tackled this issue as the communities they come from and in turn, serve.
However, even as we search for ways to respond to the endless waves of domestic violence, it is worth examining how relationships degenerate to the point of blows in the first place. To be clichéd, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. At grave risk of being accused of oversimplification, I proffer that the fundamental reason for all this violence in our day-to-day reactions is a profound lack of kindness and ability to resolve differences and disputes civilly. The cycle and culture of domestic violence that gets passed down from generation to generation start, unsurprisingly, in the home. From the time little kids become toddlers and can annoy their parents, they are subject to a regimen of physical and verbal abuse that passes for “discipline”. Kids grow up, therefore, thinking that the response to anything unpleasant is yelling and hitting. Though it does not get as much attention, women’s abuse – particularly, verbal abuse – of men with whom they are in a relationship can be especially potent. While this does not in any way justify any form of physical, emotional or even verbal retribution, cursing a man and insulting his masculinity and other facets of his being, in front of his children or his friends and family, does not contribute to an environment where any differences can be sorted out peacefully.
Therefore, while the focus is, and deservedly so, on women enduring physical abuse at the hands of their male partners, we will not solve the problem of domestic violence unless we acknowledge that domestic violence is perpetrated by both men and women against each other and their children. And to begin to solve this, an entire nation needs a re-education on how to successfully handle relationships. Kids with their playmates, teens with their peers, husbands and wives, lovers, brothers and sisters, parents and children, strangers, all need to be inculcated with the habit of exercising tolerance, understanding, patience, and tact in their day-to-day interactions with each other. There are many studies being done on what makes for successful relationships and as, summed up in a seminal essay in The Atlantic, “ there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.”
So through the clinics, classrooms, houses of worship, social media, the market places, regular media, and wherever people meet, the art of maintaining healthy relationships should be taught, and actively practiced. Politicians being among our most public figures must help to set that tone, and to back down from the cussing down politics, if only for the sake of being role models to their constituents. Other role models, like teachers, social workers, medical professionals and religious leaders need to take up this mantle and encourage kindness, since as per that Atlantic article, “there are two ways to think about kindness. You can think about it as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. Masters tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work.”
Saieed Khalil is a New York-based Guyanese starting his Masters in Economics at SUNY Albany in the Fall.