As domestic violence is a complex issue, the full discussion is often not heard. One local organisation is quietly helping the male victims of the national crisis, and I endeavoured to meet them.
The best of the room is its view, overlooking the cityscape. Some of the men stand here for hours, their worries pushed aside for a while by the comforting hustle and bustle below. When the first children arrived here a few years ago, the balcony got extra protection from some sturdy sailcloth that prevents them from pushing their little heads through the railings or dropping toys on unsuspecting heads on the street. Consequent residents have made attempts to brighten the space up a bit. There are now-sad looking plants, a string of faded flags, and one hardy tomato that hasn’t given up yet. Inside, the room also shows signs of its transient population. Its contents are functional, slightly worn out and arranged for quantity, not quality. A table for twelve, complete with high-chair, oversized sofas, a corner with some toys. And instead of pictures on the wall, there are large pieces of butcher’s paper. “Resilience”, somebody has written on them: “1. Say ‘no’ 2. Walk away 3. Emotions are valuable 4. Your children are valuable 5. You are valuable.”
In Australia, it is an organisation called One in Three that has been trying to get attention for male victims of family violence for a while now. One in three people who get hurt, physically or mentally, in relationships are male, but that seems like a message that not a lot of people want to hear. Men are excluded from government anti-violence programs, and campaigns against domestic violence almost always project men as perpetrators and women as victims. The Dutch (sorry, me again) are doing that differently. Ten years ago, the first men’s shelter opened, offering assistance to battered men and their children. Now there are six, supported by €1.5 million of government money. There has been an official campaign called “Break the Silence” aimed at male victims and female perpetrators, and the 2016 documentary Vrouw slaat Man (Wife beats Husband) was widely acclaimed. The consensus now is that domestic violence is far less about gender than about dependency and power, and that all victims, men and women, deserve the same help and attention.
It has taken a bit of organising, but on a grey Monday, I get permission to spend a day with some of the men and children in a shelter just outside one of Holland’s smaller cities. I have to sign a confidentiality agreement that puts special emphasis on the location. A few times women have found out where their husbands are hiding and once that has resulted in an attempt to torch the place. “It is interesting,” Marlies, the female social worker, tells me. “The general societal consensus still seems to be that women are not capable of extreme violence. Before I started working here, I thought the same. In my eyes, men who got beaten probably deserved it. And besides, how much damage could a woman really do? Then, on my second day, a guy came in with his 3-year old twins. He had a broken arm, four cracked ribs and a ruptured spleen. But he was happy, because he had managed to keep the children out of his wife’s reach and found safety with us. Over time, I have seen dozens of men like him. It has changed my ideas about relationships, men and women and power completely.”
Ben too has a police report that talks about attempted murder. But he too is thinking about not pressing charges. He is a loyal husband and father. Her beating him means that he is important to her. And that he has to stick with her.
I walk over to the kitchen, where Mark is making a cup of coffee for himself and the four other men that live in the house at the moment. It is early in the morning, but there is already a lot of activity. Half an hour ago they got a call that two more men will be arriving soon, with three children in tow. So rooms have to be rearranged, beds made, towels folded. Ben has just vacuumed most of the house, while Hassan is busy fixing some of the toys that were damaged yesterday, when his eight-year old son had a temper tantrum. That happens a lot here. Like adults, children have problems with being taken out of their normal environment. And being around violence inevitably teaches you that this is acceptable behaviour. So all in all, most children in the shelter need more help and guidance than others outside it.
Hassan arrived here almost a week ago, with his eldest daughter and one of his sons. His other two children are still with his wife and he fears for them. Hassan is one of a growing number of Muslim men who knock on the door of the men’s help organisations. He doesn’t blame his wife for beating him. In fact, he thinks she’s got good reason to. In their native Morocco she had her extended family around her, but in Holland she is alone. No help with the house or the children, nobody really to talk to. He is convinced the isolation got to her, and because he brought them here, she, of course, blamed him. Three years ago, the abuse started. First the yelling, then the beating, then she tried to poison him. Hassan shows me his folder, with police reports and medical paperwork that go back a while. Broken eye socket, bruised lung, internal bleeding; it is a shocking litany of injuries. But that wasn’t what finally drove Hassan to leave. Only when his twelve-year old daughter started abusing her siblings, uttering the same kind of language her mother used, did he pack his bags. For the moment. Because his wife “needs me,” he tells me, and as a husband and father his place is at home. He will just have to try to do better, be less of a loser, so “she isn’t forced to hit me.”
Ben, who is putting fresh covers on one of the sofas, starts shaking his head. “Remember when we spoke about this at therapy yesterday?”, he says to Hassan, “nobody has the right to hit anybody. And nobody ‘deserves’ to be beaten. That’s why God invented words. We can talk, so we don’t have to resort to violence.” Hassan smiles and lets the admonition pass. He knows Ben tells him that partly because he wants to hear it himself. When Ben arrived in the shelter a few days ago both his eyes were shut because of the swelling. Now there are blue and green bruises almost everywhere in his face and neck, where his wife has tried to strangle him. He too has a police report, that talks about attempted murder. But he too is thinking about not pressing charges, “so we can work on our relationship.” Maybe he can try not to look at other women anymore, so she has no reason to be jealous. Not that he has ever done anything to warrant her suspicions, by the way. He is a loyal husband and father; “when I said my vows I meant it.” But the fact that she shows her green monster means that she loves him, right? Otherwise, she wouldn’t even take the trouble? So really, if you look at it carefully, her beating him means that he is important to her. And that he has to stick with her.
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Our talk is suspended when one of the two new men arrives, with his young daughter. The child sits in her father’s arms as a frightened bird. She is absolutely, frighteningly, silent. Large eyes survey her new surroundings and only when Mark tries to coax her into playing with the toys does she stir. She clings to her dad and starts to cry. When she turns around I can see that she has wet her pants, and that she’s got a slight limp. Apparently she got in the way when her mother wanted to watch television. It wasn’t the first time the violence spilled over from her father to her, but this time he took her and ran. He didn’t bring anything, just got out the door. Scared, so scared, “because for the first time I wanted to hit her back. And I knew, if I did that, I would get the blame for all of this. Years ago, when this all started, I called the police in the middle of it all. I had the broken ribs and she admitted kicking holes in the bedroom door, but it was me they arrested. I can’t afford that to happen again. With me gone, who will protect my daughter? So I put up with it, until she went after our little one. My instinct was to kill her. But I have been raised never to hit a woman. Real men don’t do that. And despite all of it, I want to be a real man. A good man. For my girl.”
Throughout the rest of the day I keep hearing this same story. Funnily enough, it is something I have heard women in domestic violence situations say as well. “If I only invest more, it will get better.” “I get hit because I deserve it.” “The fact that they hit me means they love me.” The other stories are similar too: the isolation that is the result of years and years of asking for help from friends and family and then, in the end, going back to your abuser. If that happens a lot, people start to put distance between you and them. They start seeing you as a lost case, somebody who maybe likes the violence. Outsiders always have a lot of opinions. They are mostly black and white. Female victims hear they “only” have to be more assertive. “I would never put up with that sort of crap,” their environment says. Men hear that too, but on top of that their masculinity is made suspect. “What kind of man are you?” their friends say. And that is a good question. They thought they were nice men. Men who didn’t overpower their wives, who took care of their children, who loved their spouses. Funny, that.