COVID-19 situation throws into stark relief what victims of domestic abuse face
The circuit-breaker period may strain domestic relationships further, resulting in various forms of psychological abuse, including verbal insults, belittling, intimidation and threats of suicide. It is leaving a mark, even where there is no physical violence.
SINGAPORE: Imagine, if you can, waking up every day racked with fear that your spouse could lash out anytime he gets triggered by something he disagrees with, even if it has nothing to do with you.
For instance, the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
And you absorb the verbal abuse quietly, making yourself small — even though life would be easier if you could be invisible instead.
For the past 13 years, that has been Mdm Tan’s reality. And her husband’s slurs have only got worse since the “circuit breaker” kicked in on Apr 7.
At first, she worked from home before realising, after two days, she could not focus with his badgering. Despite being unemployed, he also “expected (her) to care for the children instead of working”, while he “just sat in front of the computer”.
Since then, she leaves for work every day, while he remains in their four-room flat with their two daughters, aged five and nine.
During this time, he watches “the global situation, like China, Wuhan, Hubei” and takes note of “how many people die, how they suffer”. Then he uses this information as a reason to rage at her.
“He tells me, ‘Oh, see the kids. You don’t care. How come you’re not worried at all? If you want to die, you go and die. You don’t have any concern. You’re too complacent.’ Things like that,” said Tan over the phone.
“He’d say I want to ... harm the kids, like I’m trying to die and make them die together with me by not observing strict hygiene practices.”
Tan’s husband was referring to wearing masks, which was not compulsory at the start of the circuit breaker.
Whenever he erupts into his usual “aggressive” tirade, she “keeps quiet” or “tries not to react so much”. She is used to walking on eggshells around him because she cannot predict what will trigger him or when his abuse will turn physical, as it has previously.
Like the other domestic abuse victims who spoke with CNA Insider, she requested anonymity to protect herself from her abuser’s potential wrath.
As reported on Apr 23, the Social and Family Development Ministry saw a 14 per cent increase in enquiries related to domestic conflicts and violence within the first two weeks of the circuit breaker, compared with the two weeks prior.
READ: MSF keeping 'close watch' on domestic abuse cases as more reach out for help over circuit breaker period
Family violence specialist centres and PAVE Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection saw a 37 per cent increase.
The ministry stated that the increase could be due to “heightened vigilance and reporting”, and not necessarily incidents of violence.
But as Tan knows, violence often does not immediately begin with physical abuse.
PYSCHOLOGICAL ABUSE ‘EASIER TO ENFORCE’
The “climate” of domestic abuse has changed, according to senior social worker Yet Tun Hoong, 42, the manager of a family service centre under Viriya Community Services.
“This is no longer the era where people just use (physical) violence. They use other ways, such as financial control, psychological and emotional control, and even social control, which includes tracking who you talk to on your phone,” he said.
Tan cannot recall the precise moment her husband began his verbal abuse 13 years ago, but she believes it happened around the time he was trying to complete a thesis for his master’s.
His experiment was stuck, and he could not get the data, igniting his bad moods. He started “talking louder”, using vulgarities and calling her “hopeless” and “helpless”. As he did this, he would come “very near” to her, making her feel uncomfortable.
“He asked what would happen to our children when they grow up: They’d be like pigs, slaughtered and bullied by others — (they’d be) worse than me,” she said.
He said he was ruined because he met me, ‘I’m rubbish’ ... He can’t contribute anything constructive. He just nags and scolds.
In addition, he tried to control her “more and more”, beginning with her dressing, and then her make-up, how she talked to people, what happened in her workplace and how she spent her money, even her supermarket purchases.
During this circuit breaker, these psychological methods of abuse are easier to enforce when victims are holed up with their abuser, usually in a “living space that’s not too big”, said Yet.
“When the abuser is angry and trying to find trouble, they don’t need to physically hurt the victim. They can smash things, hurl verbal abuse and not give (the victim) peace of mind when they’re working from home.”
That has been the case with Tan’s husband.
“He’ll smash whatever things are available, usually from my dressing table, like cosmetic bottles or even shampoo bottles from the bathroom. He’d throw or bang (the bottle) on the table so it gets out of shape,” said Tan.
“He has also punched the computer screen and light switch.”
Moreover, the stereotype that victims are homemakers does not hold any more. And with their work-from-home arrangements, being in the same space as their abuser affects their career. The victim becomes “kan cheong” and tries to “prevent things from happening”.
“But when the victims try to protect themselves, that’s when (the abuse) escalates and it becomes physical,” said Yet.
Around 10 years ago, Tan’s husband started to kick her, punch her shoulders and arms, and use a stick to hit her back. Sometimes he raises his hand to her face. Once, he also snatched her spectacles and her phone.
He does not subject their daughters to the same abuse, although he “won’t take good care of them as well”.
For instance, he once monopolised the computer, even though they needed it to do their work. And on the first day Tan went to work, he let them eat only at night, as he “had a backache” during the day.
To protect them when she is not around, she has advised them to “stay in the room and keep quiet” if they notice their father getting angry, for example if he is “banging the table”.
WHEN MENTAL ILLNESS IS INVOLVED
Even if a family has no history of outright violence, the circuit breaker could create friction between members and cause tempers to flare.
For those diagnosed with mental disorders, their conditions could be exacerbated. This includes abusers themselves, who may act out further.
Prior to the circuit breaker, 45-year-old Catherine Chan was “mentally abused” by her brother, who is 48 and suffers from borderline personality disorder as well as antisocial personality disorder.
The siblings used to live together “in the early stages of his illness”, but when she bought her own place at 35, his “mental condition started to manifest”.
He would “ask (her) for money repeatedly” and “dial (her) handphone non-stop … threatening to self-harm, like jump from a building or commit a crime, or threaten to harm (her) or (their) parents” if she refused to comply.
Since the circuit breaker started, his threats of suicide have got more frequent, among other things.
“Lately, I think there’s this video of someone throwing things down an HDB (block). He sent me that and told me he felt like doing that,” said Chan.
“He has no contact with humans because of the isolation. His interpretation of the world is very much what he sees on TV and what you get from social media, which might not be all true.
“My (main) concern is what his mind is telling him. He expresses that he’s tired because he doesn’t know how to manage our world.”
He has begun bombarding her with calls and “10 to 20 messages” daily about the government’s “COVID-19 schemes” and “how much money he can get”.
When she tries to help him understand which criteria he does not meet, he cannot accept what she says. For example, he does not qualify for the Self-Employed Person Income Relief Scheme, as he is unemployed and receives ComCare assistance.
“I tried to explain to him that he needs to produce documents ... But he just said all rules are man-made. He started yelling and cursing, so I just told him that we’d talk when he calms down,” said Chan.
“I’m used to him scolding all the ‘F’ and C’ words at me when he doesn’t get the money. Basically, he wants to hear what he wants to hear.”
In such instances, she cools off by not responding to him for a while, although he sends her his questions via WhatsApp once he knows she is ignoring him. She replies only if it is a “simple yes or no”.
When he threatens to self-harm or harm others, she gives feedback to his caseworker from the Institute of Mental Health instead.
For now, he has not physically abused her, although he has threatened to hit her. She has warned him that it would be “the end of (her) helping him” if he touches her.
Chan, who became her brother’s guardian after he got divorced about four years ago, releases stress through drawing and volunteering at Hope Alliance, an organisation that empowers people with mental health issues.
By running online meetings and support groups, she finds comfort in listening to other people’s experiences, some of which are worse than hers.
On the other hand, there are victims of domestic abuse who simply need a place to stay while they figure out their next move. In this case, places like Star Shelter are a lifeline.
Lekha has been living at Star Shelter since earlier this year, while proceeding with her divorce and personal protection order against her husband with help from the Legal Aid Bureau.
She has not gone home to their four-room flat, and her husband does not know where she is.
“Since the first day” of her marriage, she has been abused. This includes getting called “derogatory names in front of his family while he laughs about it”, and “getting strangled” once, which resulted in her seeking medical attention.
“It’s worse when his family subjected me to physical violence as well, since I had to protect myself against more people. Sometimes I felt defeated because I had no way to protect myself,” she said.
Whenever her husband’s temper exploded, she would “try to go inside the room to keep (herself) safe”, but this was futile since he often came into the room and continued the abuse.
“When he scolded me unnecessarily, I’d ask him why he did that. I felt that it was unfair ... But questioning him agitated him further,” she added.
The COVID-19 situation only provided more triggers for her husband’s rage. For example, when she reminded everyone at home to be more careful, he lashed out.
At Star Shelter, Lekha was given her own room for safe distancing when the circuit breaker was implemented. She has “a sense of freedom” in the “much more relaxed environment compared to (her) husband’s house”.
“I’m not living in constant fear of not knowing what may happen to me. I have a sense of security here. Groceries are provided, and I don’t have to worry about putting food on the table,” she said.
LEAVING ABUSER NOT EASY
Apart from shelters where victims can seek help, the government has established the Taskforce on Family Violence, comprising members from government agencies, the courts, hospitals, family violence specialist centres, crisis shelters and family service centres.
The task force will work with social service agencies and non-governmental organisations with experience in family violence services to help families manage stress so that domestic conflicts do not escalate into violence, especially during the circuit breaker, which has been extended to June 1.
READ: Inter-agency task force set up to tackle family violence amid increasingly violent cases: Sun Xueling
But seeking help can be hard for victims who might not realise they are being abused, especially if the abuse is not “obviously” physical or sexual.
“There are other forms of abuse, such as emotional, psychological, financial abuse, isolation and wrongful neglect,” said Star Shelter manager Lorraine Lim.
“These behaviours include making threats of suicide, causing fear, belittling, name-calling, humiliating, playing mind games, guilt-tripping, coercing, intimidating and victim-blaming.”
Usually, a trained counsellor or social worker can help victims “look out for signs of abuse” and “assess the severity of the abuse and risks of violence recurring”, before providing them with information so they can make their own decisions.
But victims often feel “helpless, alone and totally dependent on the abuser”, said Lim. If they are not ready to speak with a professional, there are “campaigns targeted at victims” and “reliable websites” that explain the signs of abuse.
In Tan’s case, she approached the police “many times” since around 2010, but mustered the courage to seek help from Viriya Community Services only in March. It was the first — and only — organisation she sought out.
That afternoon when she decided to visit Viriya Community Services with her children, her husband “already knew” she was going somewhere and turned “more aggressive”.
“He asked me, ‘Where are you going? What are you going to do? Why do you need to bring the kids? Can you leave them at home? If you want to go, you go. You don’t bring them,” she recounted.
“When he began to question me, I said let’s go to the police station. The investigating officer told him to go for counselling ... In front of the police officer, he agreed. But he never does anything. He won’t.”
Since Tan still lives with him, she falls back on biding her time. She feels she has “no choice” and sees “no point telling friends”.
“My family knows about the abuse, but they’re in China. In the early days, my friends knew too, but no one can take care of or stop this kind of family issue,” she said.
I don’t have many tactics to protect (myself). When he’s angry, he’s really angry and aggressive ... No matter (whether) you fight with him or don’t fight, he’d just be violent.
“There’s no way to protect myself. There is no way,” she added.
Lim, however, believes there are ways in which victims can overcome their abuser’s control.
“They have to find a safe way to stay connected through phone calls, messaging, video calls, social media and other platforms. For example, they can observe the daily routine of their abusers, like what time they sleep or ... run errands, then use that time to call a friend or family member,” she advised.
Strategising their own routine is also pertinent, so that they are not occupied by other duties during these “safe periods”. If the abuse escalates, these periods could be the only time they can escape their home or call the police.
Victims should also share a code word with a friend, who would know to call the police if the word is used in conversation.
Having endured years of abuse, Tan encourages those who are suffering in silence to “take action early” instead.
“If there’s any change of behaviour out of the norm, if the person becomes more aggressive, violent and can’t control emotion properly, don’t tolerate,” she said. “Don’t wait.”