Creating violence-free families
--Message by Human Services Minister
Guyana Chronicle
November 26, 2001

Bibi Shadick on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence to Women
EFFECTIVE efforts to create violence-free families require a partnership between men and women and the active participation of all social sectors. Strategies for redress and remedies must be designed to include the whole family, because the dynamics of family violence directly affect all its members. That effort must begin with a new vision of the "family." Whatever its size or composition, that family must be based on "unity, equality and mutual respect rather than power." This vision requires a range of actions, from the re-examination of values and attitudes to the definition and criminalisation of violent behaviour. Awareness raising, intervention and prevention must be simultaneous processes.

Family violence must be publicly acknowledged as a problem. Denial, on every level, is one of the greatest obstacles to eradicating family violence. The human need for love and acceptance often prevents victims from speaking out or even admitting that the abuse is taking place. They must be helped to recognise violence when it occurs to them, or to a sister, brother, aunt or grandmother, and be provided with the necessary legal and emotional support services. Women and children must be helped to avoid collusion with men in perpetuating violence by remaining silent, excusing violence, blaming themselves, and accepting cultural rationales.

Family violence is a human development issue. It damages wives, mothers and daughters who are battered, raped, deprived of human dignity and the means to meet their basic needs. It also traumatises the children living in these homes, where they witness or are subjected routinely to beatings, sexual and verbal abuse, and neglect. Demonstrating and perpetuating the historically unequal power relations between genders, family violence severely impedes full development and advancement of both men and women; replicating itself in generation after generation, it stunts the growth and development of whole societies. To pursue effective development strategies, agencies and organisations that work with women and children must increase their sensitivity to the issue of violence and make it central to their work.

Family violence is a human rights issue. Deeply rooted in cultural and religious gender bias, it is supported, even institutionalised, by many patriarchal societies. Family violence arises from social and legal systems that "entrust" the care of women and children to men, in fact, granting them unlimited licence to dominate, oppress, even "own" them. In societies where women's rights are overtly thwarted, family violence can be a culturally inbred part of upbringing, embedded in the consciousness of all family members as "acceptable" and "normal." Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, a gain in status for women often brings an increase, not a decrease, in reported cases of violence as men feel threatened by a loss of power.

Effective use of human rights framework to create violence-free families will require enforcement of international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It will also require state interventions that protect women and children from abuse and prevent such violations from occurring. Religious and political leaders, educators and law enforcement officials must be sensitised and mobilised to support new cultural values of mutual respect rather than domination of one gender over the other.

A violent society produces violent families. Just as family violence affects the wider society, a violent society reinforces and even creates a ripe climate for family violence. Institutionalised violence, oppression, and rigidly maintained economic and social inequalities can simultaneously victimise men and turn them into perpetrators of violence against those even more helpless, their wives and children, in a society already built upon male authority and gender bias.

To create violence-free families, the broader development community must develop effective strategies that are multi-disciplinary, collaborative and sensitive to the specific cultural and social conditions in which violence occurs. The media must eliminate stereotyped images of girls and women and portray them in egalitarian relationships with men. The explosion of communications in this century has unleashed a multi-billion dollar violence industry of films, television programmes, magazines and music, which glorify violence. They perpetuate the misperception that domestic violence is provoked, even desired by its victims. Media messages that glorify war or social violence as natural expressions of male potency and reinforce the image of women as helpless and available objects of male sexual drives need to be stopped.

Educational systems need to re-design curricula, texts, sports programmes and other activities to promote gender equality. In one Caribbean community, when a secondary school offered an elective course on child development and parenting, the class was composed of more than 50 per cent boys. Youth-oriented organisations, as well, need to focus on educating boys to develop non-violent attitudes through peer counselling, new forms of conflict-resolution, new symbols and role models of masculinity.