Break the silence

Everybody deserves to feel valued, respected, and safe.

I recall an interview on the TVM talk-show Popolin in which Gender-Based and Domestic Violence Commissioner Samantha Pace Gasan spoke about how she herself had experienced violent relationships twice in her life. As a child, she had witnessed violence towards someone close to her while later, as an adult, she herself was caught in an abusive relationship.

“I always knew something was not right. But the first time it really clicked that this was violence was during a conference by the Malta Girl Guides. They spoke about various forms of violence and the element of isolation. I realised that this was not on,” she says. That was when she acknowledged that her childhood memory and her relationship with her partner were abusive.

She decided to break up with her partner but soon realised she was pregnant.  In a moment of weakness, she was tempted to get back together with her partner for the child. “I was going to give him the chance. Which is why I understand why women find it hard to leave. But if there is one thing I’ve learnt – even through the experience of others – is that a woman should never stay for the children,” she says.

Pace Gasan miscarried the baby. It was a turning point in her life. ‘I realised I needed therapy.’ She left her clerical job and dropped out of the commerce course she had been steered toward by her partner. She took her life into her own hands and decided to follow her passion and start studying social policy. Eventually, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in social studies and followed that with a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation.

Meanwhile, apart from studying, Pace Gasan became involved in activism focusing on two main areas: gender equality and disability. Her youngest sister has Down Syndrome. The Commissioner cannot be blamed for being emotionally exhausted when, during a campaign to ‘beat the silence’, she decided that she herself would break the silence and speak openly about her own trauma. “I want victims to know I can understand.” On that occasion, she launched Malta’s third National Strategy on Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence 2023-2028.

Samantha Pace Gasan on Popolin.

Pace Gasan hasn’t had an easy life. In 2018, she collapsed while at work after suffering a rupture in the aorta – the main artery that carries blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. After several tests, she was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome – a disorder that affects connective tissue (the fibres that support and anchor organs and other structures in the body). During an operation in the UK’s Barts Hospital, she suffered a mini-stroke during surgery that impacted her vision in her right eye.

I mention all this because, though I don’t personally know the Commissioner, she looks like a very gritty woman. This may be surprising, because it is an established fact that most domestic violence victims suffer a loss of self-worth and self-confidence. They live in fear, worrying about their safety and impending danger.

Even though severing ties with the abuser seems like the best solution, many victims choose to stay with the abuser for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, they do not leave because they want to provide a family for their children, depend on the abuser financially, emotionally or their religion forbids them from breaking up a marriage.

Not easy at all

Even when victims decide to leave, according to some studies it takes them five attempts on average before they succeed. Furthermore, some of the problems persist even after they leave ̶ one of them is continuing harassment and violence from the abuser.

This was the case recently, when a 50-year-old man who lives in Fgura was accused of causing his ex-wife to fear that violence would be used against her and of committing a crime while he was on conditional discharge. The man was arrested after his ex-wife went to the domestic violence unit in Santa Luċija, where she reported that he had entered her room when she was asleep, turned on the stereo at a very high volume and started breaking stuff.

Last February, a Magistrate’s Court had issued a restraining order against him in respect of his ex-wife. But, though he was not supposed to be living in the matrimonial home, he went ahead and did so. Presumably his ex-wife was too weak or too terrified of him to report him immediately.

The warped mentality of the domestic violence abuser was quite evident from the defence put up by his lawyer. The latter explained that his client had had an offer to go live with his 89-year-old mother but did not do so not to cause her any problems. An exemplary son, you might say, not to trouble his mother, but apparently having no problem with playing the bully with his ex.

It is a pity that there are still women who either cannot marshal the will to escape from domestic violence or are not aware of the free help they can get. This includes professionals who can help them decide whether to stay or leave the relationship, find shelter if they do decide to leave, as well as provide training for skills necessary for independent living. Many victims fail to leave because they do not have the skills to start new independent lives, especially if their resources are limited. Many people who comment on cases which make it to the media or social media simply do not appreciate that the victims of domestic abuse are too mentally and emotionally depleted by the effects of the abuse to put up any resistance.

Photo: RDNE Stock project.

It takes courage

The effects of domestic violence are too many to mention here. Various studies, both locally and overseas, show that domestic violence victims experience more deprivation, depression, loneliness, apathy, and sadness than women who do not. These negative emotions often lead to mental health disorders.

It takes courage to break the silence. There are several internet sites that tell survivor stories. One of them is the Domestic Abuse Project in the US, which features the story of Demi Moore (not the film actress):

This is my story

My name is Demi Lynn Moore.
I save lives for a living.
I have a passion for health, well-being, and fitness.
I am strong, proud, and confident.
I am an educated woman pursuing a doctorate degree.
But on top of all of that, I was a victim of domestic violence.”

You might be interested to read it here.

Of course, domestic violence and abuse can happen to anyone; it does not discriminate. Abuse happens within heterosexual relationships and in same-sex partnerships. It occurs within all age ranges, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels. And while women are more often victimised, men also experience abuse ̶ especially verbal and emotional.

The bottom line is that abusive behaviour is never acceptable, whether from a man, woman, teenager, or an older adult. Everybody deserves to feel valued, respected, and safe.

Photo: RDNE Stock project

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