COVID-19 SPECIAL

With more neighbours staying home, abuse victims may now be heard

I was having a tug of war with someone - with my arm as the rope. The violence and shouting were in the street, so it was embarrassing, but I was perversely glad because a passer-by witnessed it and kindly intervened.

I was glad because, at home, if you were having your arm or hair yanked, or if you were being beaten, you were less likely to have a witness or intervention.

With Singapore residents urged or ordered to stay home, some warn that more will become victims of domestic abuse. But might there also be more stay-home neighbours who can hear the blood-curdling screams, beatings and breaking of dishes next door?

Might there be a bigger pool of neighbours as witnesses, and can they be nudged into taking action?

NO PLACE TO RUN

Family members across Singapore are now cooped up in small flats every day. They face one another across cluttered dining tables all day, and face thoughts of losing their health and income all night.

Under such crushing social pressures, normally even-tempered people may snap, lash out and injure family members for the first time during the circuit breaker period, which lasts until June 1.

Family violence specialist centres such as Trans Safe Centre and Care Corner's Project StART said they have seen an escalation and recurrence of violence among clients in the past few weeks, since stricter social distancing measures took effect here.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) said social workers told it last month that they saw a rise in the number of family-violence cases. One social worker said 60 per cent of her daily referrals were family violence-related, up from 30 per cent last year.

Other social workers said they were concerned for existing clients, as some depend on minimising contact with abusers to mitigate violence, according to a Straits Times report ("Sufficient crisis shelter space to house family violence victims during Covid-19 circuit breaker period: MSF", April 13).

Well, they are referring to a different kind of safe distancing, and it sure takes more than a 1m gap to keep abuse victims safe.

 
 
 

The restrictions on movement worldwide have also led to increasing social strain in other countries. United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called on governments early this month to include protections for women and girls.

"For many women and girls, the threat looms largest where they should be safest: in their own homes," he said, noting a "horrifying global surge in domestic violence".

The UN said that calls to helplines tripled in China, and doubled in Malaysia and Lebanon as compared with the same period last year.

Back in Singapore, one woman received more abuse from her husband since she started telecommuting a few weeks ago. He had always worked from home.

One of the flashpoints was her husband's harsh way of disciplining their children, who stopped going to kindergarten because of the outbreak, said Care Corner Project StART social worker Kristine Lam.

"He hit her with his hands," Ms Lam, the wife's social worker, told The New Paper. "He would push her and bang her head against the wall."

If Singapore goes into mandatory full lockdown, it may feel as though there is no place to run to and no place to hide from abusers.

SOME PLACE TO HIDE

The home can be a war zone. Some people are probably experiencing this for the first time because of stay-home measures.

Way back when I was a small child, I had a few dicey strategies to deal with it.

One of the places I hid at was behind a big and heavy shelf in my old home.

A metal hanger being lashed furiously at me could not quite reach my body, which was squashed behind the comforting bulk of the shelf.

You can also try to hide possible weapons as a strategy but, in a home war zone, anything can be used as one: From a belt and a bowl of soup to a chair and a window to bash heads on - you cannot hide them all.

I used to hide the kitchen knives, though, whenever I sensed that a fight was on its way. Someone used to terrify me by smashing a knife such that it slid across the kitchen floor to my feet.

I once sprinted out of the home and down the street when I was chased by a person holding a chopper.

 
 
 

As a little child, I could not control the situation, but hiding the knives was one small way of keeping everyone safe.

If there is a full lockdown today, I wonder if a child being chased by an adult with a chopper might be too scared and confused by strict stay-home rules to run for his life out of the flat.

Another strategy was to try to hide inside myself.

Behave neutrally or even try to sleep through full-on physical fights among other people in the same room.

Show a dead face and lie there like a dead body even as you try to survive.

However, if you keep calm, the abuser may very well carry on.

SOMEONE TO HEAR THE SCREAMS

Sadly, while the kind of abuse at home that is accompanied by a lot of screaming and breaking of things is horrifying, it may get a better chance of intervention.

Not during my childhood days, though. People then were probably only sort of irritated by the noise and saw it as a domestic matter. "Oh, that noisy family again."

Today, will things be different?

Can we smile and nod in an online conference call if we hear a neighbour weeping as her head is bashed against a wall?

Can we plough through maths problems in a home-based learning session as someone next door is screaming, "Please stop hitting me"?

Child abusers and wife-beaters, remember this: Buildings full of potential witnesses and concerned citizens are now at home instead of in offices.

 
 

They are listening next door. They have your number.

In fact, they have the authorities' hotlines. Officials may turn up to take a closer look at your victims' bruised bodies and listen to their stories of mental abuse.

Bullies and husband-beaters, you are the ones who should be running and hiding.


For those who wish to seek help for issues related to family violence, here are some hotlines:

- Pave Integrated Services for Individual and Family Protection Specialist Centre: 6555-0390

- Trans Safe Centre: 6449-9088

- Care Corner's Project StART: 6476-1482

- Aware's Women's Helpline: 1800-777-5555

- Big Love Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6445-0400

- Heart @ Fei Yue Child Protection Specialist Centre: 6819-9170

- ComCare hotline: 1800-222-0000

- National Care hotline: 1800-202-6868

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 26, 2020, with the headline 'With more neighbours staying home, abuse victims may now be heard'. Print Edition | Subscribe