Any discussion encompassing gender in Barbados seems to be permanently stuck on the old "but it happens to men too!" or "men suffer worse!" refrain. And the media seems quite happy to play that tit-for-tat game: every issue must be highlighted as having equal effects and repercussions for men and women, whether this be the case or not; and - I suppose through some naïve interpretation of equality - both 'perspectives' must be given equal column inches and presented with like gravity. Intimate partner violence has become chief among these.
Last week, the Nation devoted pages of coverage to the silent but apparently common scourge of woman-on-man intimate partner violence. Chairman of the Men's Educational Support Association, Ralph Boyce, who has become the self-appointed spokesperson for men's rights, was quoted heavily in one of several articles on the issue:
THERE ARE A LOT OF WEAK MEN IN BARBADOS.
That's the conclusion of the chairman of the Men's Education Support Association (MESA) about men who stay in relationships where they are verbally, physically or psychologically abused by their girlfriends or spouses.
First off, I would venture that further denigrating the character of victims of abuse by publicly classifying them as 'weak' is the wrong tack to take in offering them help. But further, if feels to me as if Boyce is conflating his outrage at violence against men with his general indignation that women should dare to speak on behalf of their male partners:
"In MESA, we have some cases, luckily not too many, where men say they can't come to meetings because their wives say they can't come.
"Or, it is a case where I call a man's home to invite him to a meeting and his wife or woman says he can't come and starts giving me reasons," Boyce disclosed, adding:
"We have some surprisingly weak men in Barbados and the women hate them for it. They call them 'twerps' and twits.
Controlling behaviour is often a serious indicator of systemic violence in a relationship, but I would hesitate to categorize the declining of an invitation on a partner's behalf as psychologically abusive. One gets the sense that Boyce is really saying "listen, man up and put your foot down, and no woman will overstep her place long enough to knock you around." This is clearly an oversimplification of the dynamic of intimate partner abuse. While Boyce asserts that the problem of female violence against men has gone unaddressed because "[w]hat prevented victims from coming forward was the perceived ridicule", he ironically spends much of the article ridiculing men who have been abused, while tossing out vague generalizations like "women like men who are strong."
And he also seems to confuse anecdotal evidence with data:
"One of our members who was doing some research into physical violence told me that a man told him his wife slapped him inside the supermarket in front of everybody and the member asked him what he did, and his response was that he went outside the supermarket and cried. This is a real case," he said.
I'm not sure what to do with that. Are we to be awed by the fact that a man might suffer physical abuse at the hands of his wife? Or that he cried? Or that he didn't retaliate with 'strength', however Boyce might define this. Because for all Boyce's purported rejection of "[t]he traditional belief [...] that the man is not supposed to show any kind of emotion", he seems to subscribe to it himself. Or is this merely meant to serve as evidence that such violence exists? In which case, I, for one, don't need much convincing. I saw one such case, in fact. That is, (and since we're basing conclusions on observed evidence) one case in my entire lifetime as against oh, say, a couple hundred involving women as victims. Boyce, though, is not convinced that the problem is so uncommon:
The verbal and physical abuse is very common. A lot of the time, women initiate the violence against men.
I would love to have that 'a lot of the time' qualified (in a lot of the cases involving male victims, or the DV cases in general?), and this is a huge part of my problem with this kind of irresponsible reporting on the part of people who should know better: a respected and recognizable public figure stands up and, speaking with seeming authority and one would assume the benefit of research, claims that "a lot of the time, women initiate the violence against men", and people run off convinced that not only is violence against women not the immense public health problem it actually is, but that women actually initiate this and other types of violence, and conversely, it is violence against men that constitutes the real danger in the Caribbean.
We know that there is likely to be chronic underreporting of all types of domestic violence cases, among both men and women, but this is not a sufficient condition to deduce that men are being abused as much as women, and it's just that they're not telling anyone because people, ironically like the MESA Chairman, will call them weak. And it isn't even necessary to prove that the abuse is as widespread as that against women in order for it to be flagged as a problem: no one should have to endure abuse, and if we can provide unique support for these men that they might not get from a regular victims'/survivors of violent crime support service, then we should (although I would suggest that given his tenuous grasp of the intimate partner abuse dynamic, Mr. Boyce not be the one to offer such support).
But let us not present violence against women, as the Nation has done by first telling the stories of men who have been abused and then in a subsequent issue those of women (the latter notably in fewer pages), as on equal footing with that against men. It simply is not true, and I'm not sure what purpose it is meant to serve. It has been a hard struggle in the Caribbean, this business of eliminating violence against women, and it seems very little headway is being made. For years, activists and Ministers alike have been highlighting the grossly exceeded capacity of shelters for women and children here in Barbados, while in Jamaica, domestic-related murders jumped 20 per cent between 2005 and the end of 2006 and continue to rise, with women and girls constituting (at least) over 70% of the victims in each year of reporting.*
It would be misguided to allocate public resources meant to reduce domestic violence equally (that is, equally; that is not to say no resources should be allocated to DV against men at all) along the violence against women/violence against men divide, and to lump them together both in our discussion and treatment of the issue is also a mistake. They are simply not the same: the persistent dynamic that keeps women in abusive situations both in homes and communities; its coexistence with sexual violence and women's exercise of their sexual decision-making and rights; the higher HIV infection rate of women which operates alongside a higher care-taking burden than that of men; all these things and more separate violence against women from violence against men. I am all for public resources being allocated to the elimination of all forms of violence against our citizens, but let's keep in perspective who the most emergent victims are, and stay focused in our advocacy to save women's lives.
*Jamaica Constabulary Statistics Department Report 2007