Dating abuse in secondary schools “There is no respect whatsoever”

POSTED: 06/19/13 12:34 PM

St. Maarten -Last year, the Safe Haven Foundation started an outreach program to foster awareness on dating abuse in secondary schools. However the program had to be suspended because of financial difficulties; the foundation could no longer afford to pay for the publication of awareness material and for additional staff to visit the schools. While the program was short-lived, the foundation did find that dating abuse is very prevalent on St. Maarten. Time spent speaking with students revealed a startling mirror of society; young teenage boys through social learning had already developed the traits of violent abusers.

Loyola Seymonson has served as the director of the Safe Haven Foundation- a home for battered women since 2009. Before assuming that post, Seymonson also headed the Sister Basilia Centre but spent a great deal of time working in social services in the Netherlands.

She recounted that upon visiting one secondary school, a male student was proud to say that he had slapped his girlfriend and also forced himself on her but did not consider his actions sexual assault or rape.

“He said no, it was not rape because he used a condom. So if you see how the relations between young boys and girls are right now, I don’t know how it’s going to be when they grow up and start families of their own. There is no respect whatsoever,” Seymonson said.

“A lot of teenagers are being abused by their boyfriends. We are getting a lot of calls from the secondary schools to do the program because a lot of teenage dating abuse is going on. We don’t really know how severe it is but it is severe if the social workers of the schools are requesting help; that means something is wrong,” she added.

Women and girls fall victim to various forms of abuse because their male partners feel the need to exert control over them. Seymonson was quick to point out that abuse does not discriminate; it affects every culture, religious persuasion, color and social status on the island.

She also challenged the fairness of a legal system which she says provides free legal representation and translation for abusers but does not extend the same courtesy to victims. She said that she brought the issue to the attention of the Prosecutor’s Office.

“It is really a strange thing here, but I know it’s the law and they are working on it. Things are getting a little bit better but legal assistance for the women, we have to pay for it. Getting a lawyer is more than $3000 just to get a divorce. Getting a restraining order is about $1000. Where are these women going to find this type of money?”

 

Legislation on relational violence is being crafted with key stakeholders such as Safe Haven and the Peridot Foundation contributing to its structure. However getting the necessary legislation approved is only one part of the solution towards eliminating such violence in the society. Seymonson insists that the success of the legislation will depend heavily on its enforcement.

“The law is already there in Holland and Curacao but they want to adjust it to St. Maarten’s environment. It’s not only the law; legislation is good, but we have to execute it and it’s also the mindset of the people of the island, from the police to social services.”

She explained that women who have been verbally, sexually, emotionally or physically abused are not in relationships because they “really like it. They are mentally or emotionally ill or have financially dependence and even religious reasons for remaining.”  The perception by an indifferent society is that abuse victims are comfortable in their circumstances.

She accused the police of ignoring abuse victims.

“Even at the police station, it has changed a little bit, but the police are still acting towards women when we go and file complaints like they don’t care. If they go to the house two or three times, when we go again, they say they are not going because it is wasting police time. If a woman gets beaten five times and she goes back to her husband but it is everyone’s duty to help in the sixth time. Maybe that is when she is ready to leave because it is a whole process. There are all kinds of reasons and it is not easy to say when a man hits me I will pack up my things and leave. It is easier said than done.”

Safe Haven is still to do any comprehensive research on the prevalence of relational violence on St. Maarten. However the foundation has begun a tedious process of cataloguing various reports of abuse that are made via its hotline and the number of clients who seek its services annually. The foundation also solicits data from medical facilities and the police whenever a case of relational violence is suspected or reported.

“It was very difficult to get all of the parties together to help us to get this data going.”

Her analysis of the situation has led Seymonson to quantify the situation in the following way: In 2012, the foundation has 100 percent occupancy. At any one moment 24 clients can be housed at the facility and for 2012 it was completely filled.

“There was not a day when the shelter was not full.”

Last year, the foundation housed 58 clients in its shelter and also attended to the needs of ten outdoor clients.

At first glance, things appear to be improving for 2013; the shelter has only had 2 clients. But Safe Haven cannot definitely say that domestic violence is decreasing, it could be that people are no longer reporting their situations to that particular foundation. Then there’s the issue of the foundation having to turn away clients because it can no longer provide for them with the stoppage of its Amfo funding.

“I really don’t think things are getting better because we are still getting calls on the hotline from women looking for help. Some of them are not really looking for shelter but seeking advice,” Seymonson explained.

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