It is important that we learn to recognise the signs and symptoms of gender-based violence in order to help victims or even stop this crime from happening.
First, it is important to realise that there are multiple types of violence: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, social abuse (such as isolation), economic abuse (withholding funds), plus threats and stalking, says Women’s Centre for Change programme director Karen Lai.
According to Lai, common signs of intimate partner violence include physical injuries such as bruising; psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, poor appetite; emotional signs of distress such as fear, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts/tendencies, low self-esteem, difficulty focusing and self-blame.
Another could be someone asking how to get help and support “for a friend”.
She adds that sometimes, it’s children who disclose violence in the home, and they might exhibit signs such as aggressive behaviour, anxiety, depression, or keeping to themselves, so those working with children need to be sensitive too.
Lai says that there are a number of characteristics displayed by a perpetrator that can be warning signs or ‘red flags’.
“At its core, intimate partner violence, including domestic violence, is about the abuser having power and control over victims which manifests in different forms. Jealousy which shows up in aggressive and controlling behaviour is an example,” she says.
“Risk factors for extreme violence that could lead to death include an abuser who has been violent before and/or has been previously convicted; where there is alcohol or drug abuse involved; and where there is a history of mental health problems including difficulty regulating emotions,” she adds.
There are several things a woman can do to protect herself if she is experiencing intimate partner violence, before it becomes fatal, says Lai.
“Firstly, be aware that violence tends to happen in a cycle, so even if the abuser calms down during the ‘honeymoon’ phase, without intervention, it’s likely that the violence will happen again.
“Secondly, seek help early, especially where there are clear red flags such as threats of death or harm, even through text, calls, or social media. Contact a women’s NGO, such as WCC, Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), or Sarawak Women for Women (SWWS), and visit their websites/social media for more information. At the very least, be aware of your rights.
“Thirdly, have a safety plan or exit plan. For instance, keep important phone numbers (such as the police, relatives, friends, and local women’s organisations) at hand. Ask friends or neighbours to call the police if they hear angry or violent noises. Keep important documents (such as passports, birth certificates, and bank documents) in an easily accessible place in case you need to escape quickly,” she says.
According to Lai, the top priority is to ensure the victim’s safety.
“Assess the situation and if there is an immediate threat, bring the victim directly to a police station; do not disclose the victim’s location (be mindful not to post to social media also); and do not suggest a joint meeting with the abuser or attempt to confront the abuser,” she advises.
It’s important to offer support to the victim, she adds.
“Do not judge or blame the survivor; be patient because survivors who are highly distressed need time to process their situation. They often choose to stay with their abuser due to a variety of reasons, including fear of retaliation, financial dependence, and social stigma. And, some have formed a trauma bond with their abuser which can be difficult for outsiders to understand. This is a deep emotional attachment with someone that causes them harm, which develops as a coping mechanism when there is a repeated cycle of abuse.”
“Do not make decisions for the victim or expect her to decide quickly.”
“Do not attempt to counsel the victim or abuser if you are not a trained counsellor. Instead, offer to bring the victim to a women’s organisation with trained counsellors or social workers,” says Lai.