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WOMAN: Why women become abusive
Manveet Kaur
June 07:

Women, often viewed as the gentler sex, have the capacity to be as violent as men. MANVEET KAUR talks to the experts to find out why. THE gentler sex. The weaker sex. That’s how women have long been perceived as. They have also been thought of as the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators.

However, history shows it is not unusual for women to be violent. Catherine II of Russia was intelligent, learned and cultured, and she vastly strengthened the Russian empire.

But she was also cruel and merciless towards all who opposed her — including her husband, Tsar Peter III, whom she succeeded on his murder. She is said to have kept one of her lover’s heads in a jar by her bed.

"Bloody" Mary I was a Roman Catholic queen in a newly Protestant country. Mary ordered the burning and torture of over 300 Protestants.

Elizabeth, Countess Bathory was a sadist who perpetrated incredible cruelties upon her servants and peasant girls, murdering over 650 of them during her reign of terror.

Recent news headlines have further highlighted that, in spite of their stereotype as gentle nurturers, women have the capacity to be as violent as men. Just look at the case against Private Lynndie England who allegedly tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

In Malaysia, violence against men by their wives is nothing new as well — it is just rarely reported, because men are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit what’s happening to them. Child abuse statistics also indicate women hurt their children as often as (or more often than) men do.

The most common by far are the maid abuse cases that are surfacing. Stories of ill-treated, abused and tortured maids are always floating around. But complaints are rarely registered, until something extremely traumatic happens.

So, what’s going on? As more women are being detained for violent or abusive offences, it has led us to wonder what could possibly have made them resort to such violence.

There are many different theories, from a coarse and violent culture in general, to violent women portrayed in movies (think Terminator 3) to the waning of religious influence, more broken homes and more mothers pursuing a career.

Who knows for sure?

On the psychological side of things, some of our local experts share their views.

Dr Rabin Gonzaga, president of the Malaysian Mental Health Association, says that the risk factors associated with women’s violent behaviour are not that different from those associated with men’s violent behaviour.

"Low threshold for managing anger, depression, stress and marital problems are equally valid psychological predictors of violence, regardless of race or gender," he says. However, it has been shown that in certain circumstances, women’s reasons for committing violence are unique.

For example, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) has occasionally been used to explain women’s violence, sometimes even in court. American research suggests around five per cent of women do suffer severe emotional disturbance prior to a period, but sceptics say that it cannot alone account for most female violence.

"PMS can range in severity from mild to incapacitating, in both a physical and psychological sense," says Dr Gonzaga.

"PMS does occur, but it doesn’t occur in all women, and it doesn’t mean that all women who get it are mentally ill."

Another "females only" explanation for violent behaviour is post-partum depression (PPD).

But again, the experts are not buying it.

"PPD develops because of the dramatic drop in oestrogen and progesterone pregnancy-sustaining hormones that occurs with childbirth," explains Dr Prashant Nadkarni, a consultant obstetrician-gynaecology based in Kuala Lumpur. "But we believe that it is extremely rare for it to result in abuse."

He notes that PPD is characterised by changes in sleep and appetite patterns, increased irritability, a decrease in concentration and feelings of inadequacy, guilt and worthlessness. It can happen after the birth of any child, not just the first child.

Dr Nadkarni also says there is a wide disparity between the number of women suffering from PPD in Asian and Western countries because of the higher levels of support available here.

"In Malaysia, women usually have the support of their extended family or their maids to help them with the baby and the house," he says. "In Western countries, where most women live in nuclear families and have a weaker support system, they often snap under the intense pressure of caring for their newborn, juggling household chores and sometimes even a job."

Dr Gonzaga adds that most people suffering from depression don’t harm other people, unless it is a severe case, for example, if the patient suffers a degree of psychosis.

He points to the example of Texas mother Andrea Yates, sentenced to 40 years’ prison for drowning her five children in the bathtub. But while childbirth is the spark for such "post-partum psychosis", only one in 600 women are likely to be afflicted, in contrast to the 14 per cent affected by postnatal depression.

Another of the supposed "common sense" views about violence is that experiencing it will lead to the subsequent use of violence.

But Dr Gonzaga says this is not inevitable. "How do you then explain the majority of abused people who don’t become violent?" he asks.

"Everyone experiences pain and discomfort which can lead to aggression. Those who do not become excessively aggressive and violent are those who have learnt, probably from a young age, not to be aggressive," he says.

He stresses that the most common feature among abusers is an imbalance of power and control. Abusers, says Dr Gonzaga, tend to target people who are vulnerable or are defenceless, like children, maids, the handicapped or the elderly.

He adds that it is important to note that abusers choose violence to get what they want in a relationship.

Associate Professor Dr Nor Zuraidah Zainal, a consultant-liaison psychiatrist adds that anti-social personality disorder and conduct disorder are also strongly linked to violent or aggressive tendencies in women.

"These factors become most apparent in teenage years and if not identified and treated, continue into adulthood," she says. "Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, treatment is available only after the violent offence has been committed and the woman has been imprisoned."

Dr Bharathi Vengadasa, a clinical specialist and psychiatrist, also cites poverty, unemployment, isolation, single parenthood and substance abuse as possible triggers for violent behaviour.

While local statistics are not available, in Singapore, at least 30 murder and suicide cases have been reported since 1973. In 23 of them, the mother was responsible. Most of the women had trouble coping with their children and were overwhelmed by financial or marital problems.

However, Dr Bharathi stresses that no single theory or explanation for women’s violence can ever be satisfactory. "You can have a mental health problem, without being diagnosed with a mental health disorder," she says. "But even if a person has a biological predisposition to mental illness, it doesn’t mean they are abusers."

"Most women feel the strain even with most mundane day-to-day living pressures," she adds.

"Women who feel stressed out playing the multiple roles of employee, wife, mother, daughter and daughter-in-law should take a step back and look at their lives in perspective."

She suggests that women talk it out if they feel they’re on the verge of a breakdown. "You are not a superwoman," she says. "Ask your husband to help shoulder the household burden or work out alternatives with him. The stresses in your life are a family matter, not yours alone."

Otherwise, seek counselling or see a doctor. Counselling is available at organisations like the Women’s Aid Organisation Tel: 03-7955-4426/ 7956-3488, All Women’s Action Society Tel: 03-7877-0224, The Befrienders 03-7957-1306 and the MMHA Tel 03-7782-5499 or email: mmha@tm.net.my.


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