On November 7, the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba hosted the first of a three-part series aimed at raising awareness and bringing attention to the growing problem of domestic violence and abuse.
In conjunction with Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the first session, held at the Pat Porter Active Living Center in Steinbach, took an in-depth look at domestic violence, the many myths surrounding the topic, and ways to bring effective support for victims.
The second public session will take place on November 21 at 7 p.m. Here the presenter will identify the effects of having witnessed or experienced childhood abuse and how it impacts people’s development.
The series will conclude with a one-day workshop specially organized for religious leaders, pastors, counselors and those in spiritual care roles. This session will help raise awareness that the church community is far from free from the problem of abuse. Church leaders will gain tools to recognize signs of abuse, help victims get to safety, and hold perpetrators accountable.
The two presenters are Val Hiebert and Jaymie Friesen, both coordinators of MCC’s Abuse Response and Prevention program.
Hiebert holds a doctorate in sociology and anthropology and currently teaches at the University of Manitoba. Friesen is pursuing a master’s degree in psychotherapy and had many years of hands-on experience at sexual assault centers prior to MCC.
MCC’s abuse program began over 20 years ago and was originally known as Voices for Non-Violence.
“MCC does a lot of peace work and most of that work for many years has been really focused overseas in developing countries,” Friesen says. “Part of that agenda was a mandate to do work more locally, recognizing that violence and harm also happens within faith communities and in homes.”
For most of the year, Friesen and Hiebert’s MCC work is relatively church-centric, bringing conversations to faith-based settings to help break the silence and stigma that surrounds domestic violence.
Although they are not direct service providers, the duo can make referrals to the many resource centers available for victims of abuse. Additionally, they partner with victim support groups and work to develop programs to help abusers change their violent habits.
Until now, Friesen says, abuse was a topic rarely discussed in the church because of the shame attached to it. The church may unwittingly perpetuate a climate conducive to abuse.
“Wherever you see a strong patriarchal culture, you also see higher rates of violence,” Friesen says. “It’s not to say that the culture causes abuse, but I think wherever you see this power imbalance established in a teaching, it often makes women feel like they have to obey their husbands and they don’t have no right to speak. ”
It is up to spiritual leaders to speak out against abuse, she adds, instead of responding in a way that makes victims feel like they have to forgive and let go.
Domestic violence is not limited to physical violence. It can take a number of other forms, including sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, and can include manipulation, harassment and harassment.
Regardless of the method, domestic violence boils down to one partner gaining and retaining power and control over another.
“Spousal abuse is basically denying someone a choice,” says Friesen. “It’s not allowing someone to have a voice. It is about depriving someone of their dignity. It’s about violating boundaries and removing autonomy and security. These are the things that are at the heart of what abuse is.
According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba has one of the highest rates of violence against girls and women. Provincial rates of intimate partner violence are also near the top, second only to Saskatchewan.
The most frequent calls received by Winnipeg police are related to domestic violence. This represents approximately 44 calls per day, or 16,000 calls per year.
These calls come from all neighborhoods and people from all walks of life and are not segregated based on socio-economic status.
Perhaps most compelling of all, rates of violence against girls and women are 1.8 times higher in rural Manitoba compared to Winnipeg.
Statistically, only one in five cases of abuse are reported to the police, suggesting that the actual rates of abuse are much gloomier than they appear.
Friesen also confronts a number of common myths held by victims and also those outside the situation.
One, she says, is the belief that there was no abuse unless physical abuse was involved. In reality, many partners suffer more intensely from psychological or emotional abuse because there is no external bruising to offer as evidence.
“Sometimes these [victims] wish they were just physically hurt, because then it would become real and concrete,” says Friesen. “[Psychological abuse] is so incredibly [damaging]and yet, in its very essence, it makes you doubt the experience.
Another myth involves the idea that violence only occurs in opposite-sex relationships.
The results of a 2018 study indicate that the opposite is true. Fifty-four percent of sexual minority men experience psychological, physical or sexual abuse, compared to 36% of heterosexual men.
For sexual minority women, the figures rise to 67%, compared to 44% for heterosexual women.
The sad reality, says Friesen, is that few resources and safe havens are available to men, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Another common belief, especially in faith communities, is that sexual abuse cannot happen in a marital relationship.
“When I do my work as a women’s counsellor, I assume that if there’s abuse, there’s also sexual abuse,” Friesen says. “Unfortunately, they usually come to recognize that what happened in their sex life was not consensual and that they believed it was their duty to do the things they were asked to do.”
Finally, misunderstandings also circulate suggesting that the victim attracts abuse by not establishing clear boundaries with their partner. According to Friesen, the victims themselves often believe themselves guilty of this.
The reality, however, is that exercising a right to limits can actually exacerbate violent behavior, since violence is essentially about power and control.
For those on the outside looking to support a victim of abuse, it is important to recognize the difference between unhealthy relationship conflict and coercive, controlling abuse.
The first can occur during occasional outbursts of anger that result in degrading words or mild levels of physical aggression. Here, couples therapy can be very emotional.
Conversely, couples therapy is usually counterproductive when one partner is controlled by the other, as it limits their ability to share honestly and puts them at increased risk for abuse after the session.
So what can a person do to support a victim of domestic violence? Friesen says the first thing is to validate them by believing their story. This can become a pivotal moment for the victim, giving them the courage to ask for help.
Then, be prepared to connect them with available resources and accompany them to the police or resource centers at their request.
Never act on behalf of the victim without their permission, emphasizes Friesen. This has the potential to make the situation worse.
Finally, everyone can make a difference by normalizing conversations about abuse, giving victims the freedom to speak up for themselves.
In terms of rehabilitating perpetrators, there are support programs such as Caring Dads that have been shown to be effective, but they are not the right setting for pathological abusers.
“With coercive control violence, these people often fall somewhere on the spectrum of narcissism,” Friesen says. “These people are often unwilling to take responsibility and they don’t see that they have caused harm. They’re going to kind of spin it around so they’re the victims.
Similar to addiction, without recognition of a problem and a deep, committed desire to change, change is unlikely. Support people who attempt to work with narcissists can also be seduced by their manipulative tactics, Friesen warns, so professional help is best suited here.
Brenda Sawatzky, reporter for the local journalism initiative, The Niverville Citizen