Family violence is not a private matter
MSF launches Break The Silence campaign to drive home the message that everyone can help prevent, detect and report abuse
A mother of three was rescued after 15 years of torment by her abusive husband.
All because a stranger decided to step in to help her instead of turning a blind eye and minding his own business.
A two-year-old boy, Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser, is now dead after being abused by his mother and her boyfriend.
All because the people around them never thought to intervene or inform the authorities.
This thin line between life and death was highlighted yesterday at the National Family Violence Networking System Conference, where the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) launched the Break The Silence campaign.
The three-year campaign wants to drive home the message that family violence is not a private matter and that people who are aware of family violence can do something about it.
Everyone can play a part to prevent, detect and report abuse, said MSF.
EXPRESSION: (above) Some of the artwork by survivors of family violence, showcased at Star Shelter. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SOCIAL AND FAMILY DEVELOPMENT
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin said at the conference: "We cannot remain silent on family violence. This silence may lead to another unfortunate case like Daniel's."
Daniel, who died last November, was abused by his mother and her boyfriend for 25 days during a 35-day period. After his death, 41 injuries were found on his tiny body.
Recalling the tragedy yesterday, Mr Tan said: "Instead of a safe haven, home became a place of fear and torture. I am deeply saddened by Daniel's story.
"I ask myself if this tragedy could have been avoided. Could we, or anyone, have sounded the alarm earlier?"
Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
After his two tormentors were sentenced to jail in July, The New Paper on Sunday had asked the same question.
Surely, someone must have known of the abuse, said Mr Tan. Yet the case never appeared on MSF's radar.
"Could we be more vigilant and be attentive to those who may be suffering in silence?" he asked.
"In the end, our intervention capabilities are only as good as the eyes and ears on the ground to identify victims in need."
A study conducted by MSF on family violence revealed that four in 10 found it hard to report a case of family violence because they felt it was a private matter.
But professionals can reach out to the victims only if bystanders sound the alarm, said Mr Tan.
A series of artwork by survivors of family violence at Star Shelter was exhibited as part of the conference yesterday.
They tell of the survivors' pain, fear and isolation, as well as their hope and courage as they rebuild their lives.
On the sidelines of the conference, Ms Sudha Nair, executive director of family violence specialist centre Pave, shared a rare case of how a mother of three was rescued after 15 years of spousal abuse because a stranger decided to intervene.
The victim had stuck with her husband despite being sexually abused, physically beaten, harassed and wrongfully confined.
Financially dependent on her husband, she had to beg him for money. Sometimes, he gave her money by throwing notes in her face.
She was not allowed to contact her family, who lived overseas.
One day, a stranger saw the husband verbally abusing her in public and advised her to apply for a personal protection order.
This set into motion the opportunity for her to break free of the vicious cycle of violence.
Today, with the help of Pave, she is financially secure and carving out a future for herself and her children - something she could not have imagined in the past.Mohamad Daniel Mohamad Nasser
"If not for that bystander, all these things wouldn't have happened," said Dr Nair.
"She probably would still be in this very abusive relationship and suffering. And what is worse is that the children would also be suffering."
No signs are small enough to be tolerated, she added.
"You have to let the professionals decide how serious it is. Your job as a bystander is to alert the professionals that something is wrong and let them come in and do the investigations.
"It's always better to err on the side of caution, rather than look at Daniel and say, 'Yes, we could have done something. This two-year-old could have been saved.'"
Next Wednesday will mark the first anniversary of the day Daniel was found dead.
Mr Tan hopes the day will also be a lesson for everyone to stop being mere bystanders.
"As long as violence in the home is shrouded in silence, the violence will not cease," he said.
"We can prevent other horror stories if we all resolve to take a stand to break the silence on family violence and offer comfort, help and support to the vulnerable.
"Through our collective efforts, we will keep our children and families safe and secure, free of violence."
As Dr Nair put it: "That step you take could possibly save someone's life. It's a very important message we need to send out."
"Could we be more vigilant and be attentive to those who may be suffering in silence?"
- Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin
Why family violence is not reported: MSF study
In January, the Ministry of Social and Family Development did a family violence study.
Over face-to-face interviews, 2,000 people were asked for their thoughts on barriers to reporting family violence cases.
Here are some of the barriers cited.
About four in 10, , of those surveyed saw family violence as a private matter.
And professionals can reach out to a family in need only if someone sounds the alarm, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin.
Quoting expert advice from a New York Times report on viewing family violence as a private matter, he said: "Violence is not a private matter and is not acceptable.
"Others who may not be brave enough to intervene may be hoping that the next person or someone else would get involved and report it.
"Do not assume that another person would step in to help. Let that person be you."
In some cases, a whistleblower can potentially save someone's life, said Pave executive director Sudha Nair.
FEAR OF BREAK-UP
More than half of those surveyed were afraid of breaking up a family.
Contrary to popular belief, Dr Nair said reporting a case of family violence can help salvage strained family ties.
And most of the people who go to Pave for help do not end up in divorces, she added.
"People have this idea that I don't want to intervene because it's going to break up the family. But they don't realise that by intervening, you're saving the families because you're stopping the violence.
"You're allowing for the perpetrator to get help. You're providing help for the survivors. And you're breaking the cycle for the children."
Almost 37 per cent said they were unsure what family violence constituted. They saw family violence more readily as physical violence, fights and quarrels.
"The survey results tell us that a lot of the time, people don't know what to do, and as Minister says, the definition of violence is very narrow," said Dr Nair.
"I think one of the things is to tell them about the types of violence and that violence is not merely physical.
"Sometimes, emotional violence is even worse, like wrongly confining somebody, continuously putting them down, using vulgarities and just instilling fear. You just have to sharpen a knife, and that instils fear."
One of the lesser-known types of elder abuse, for instance, is financial abuse, Ms Yee-Chow Choy Yin pointed out.
The Trans Family Services' chief executive officer said: "It's often masked by giving and love for the children.
"We have cases where the elderly may overindulge their children, thinking that they would have a good life with the children after they retire. So they open joint accounts, sell the flat when their children ask them to.
"But the danger in some cases is that the reality is different. The elderly may then be homeless, and all the money may be taken away without them knowing."
By the Numbers
Number of personal protection order applications:
3,147 - 2013
2,951 - 2014
2,885 - 2015
Number of abuse cases:
343 - 2013
381 - 2014
551 - 2015
If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, you can contact:
Family Violence Specialist Centres
Pave 6555 0390
Trans Safe Centre 6449 9088
Care Corner Project Start 6476 1482
Child Protection Specialist Centres
Big Love 6445 0400
Heart @ Fei Yue 6819 9170
ComCare 1800 222 0000