Challenges in the face of domestic violence

The prevalence of a patriarchal ideology in Cuban society and, therefore, in health and justice professionals, has an incidence in their low perception of sexist violence and the little visibility of that problem on a social level. In addition, the lack of specialised institutional mechanisms to attend to that problem strengthens the idea that it is a private matter, when actually it demands a social response.

For many Cuban professionals, even of Social Sciences, it is very difficult to recognise that Cuban society is patriarchal. Faced by the fact that in Cuba women and men are equal before the law, that they earn the same wages for the same work, that Cuban women have a high educational level and that they have an almost 50 per cent representation in Parliament (48.86%), it becomes difficult to identify that, socially, the masculine continues having a hierarchical position over the feminine.

There are patriarchies of coercion and patriarchies of consensus. In the patriarchy of coercion male supremacy is clear and open, legal as well as social practices declare women’s subordination. Meanwhile, the patriarchy of consensus is the one that officially expresses equality between men and women, but in a subtle and implicit way, many time without being aware of it, continues having an androcentric vision of the reality that overrates the masculine and discriminates against the feminine. In Cuba there exists a patriarchy of consensus and the patriarchal ideology that accompanies it is in the social imagination, of men and of women. This patriarchy of consensus survives and perpetuates in society since, except for some small academic groups, in Cuba neither the men nor women are usually aware of gender and of what the social construction implies of being educated to be a man or woman.

The fact that the symbolic subordination that exists of a gender over another is not recognised (which although this occurs based on the symbolic, in its consequences it is real), makes the imbalance of power between men and women invisible and this is the fundamental foundation of imbalance of power for relations of violence to take place. In the sphere of couple relations is where these inequalities are most evident, since while the public policies in Cuba have significantly encouraged the insertion of women into the public world, work has not been carried out with the same effort to encourage men to have a more responsible family and paternal relation. This, of course, would require greater efforts, since based on the social imagination – and this has been reflected in our media and social institutions – the achievements in the public sphere are recognised and valued much more than those of the private and family space. Meanwhile, in the amorous couple, the feminine body has historically been a space subject to control.

The previously described situation is an element of vulnerability that favours the appearance and continuation of many manifestations of violence against women, especially in the sphere of heterosexual couples’ relationships. The ones that most commonly coexist, from ignorance and invisibility, are those of the psychological order that rest on what culture considers customs and traditions naturalised by society.

Though in Cuba it is not common to find quantitative data that reflect the frequency and classification of violence, qualitative studies that show the peculiarities of its behaviour have recently started to proliferate. In studies made in Pinar del Río and the city of Havana the presence of violence in couple relations is identified, as well as the low perception of this situation by those who suffer1 it. Meanwhile, in studies carried out in the central provinces with couples from Villa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus, Ciego de Avila and Camagüey, the existence of a high proportion of manifestations of violence was confirmed2. Though it is psychological violence that is identified, predominantly, in these investigations, physical and sexual violence is still part of the daily life of some couples, which remain united despite these conditions, as demonstrated by the studies carried out in the municipality of Cacocum, in the province of Holguín3.

At present, the problem of violence against women is considered a matter of human rights that has called the attention of United Nations agencies and this is why numerous international instruments condemning it have been developed. Cuba is also involved in this problem and the Cuban government has demonstrated its political will to achieve the advance of women’s situation; that is why it was the first country to sign the Convention on the elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women and the second to ratify it. Moreover, the Constitution of the Republic of Cuba proclaims that “women and men enjoy equal economic, political, cultural, social and family rights.” However, a legislation is not sufficient to change a problem that has its foundations rooted in culture, in a way of thinking passed on from generation to generation and that, constantly, in a subtle way, the media strengthens and reproduces. The situation becomes even more complex when it occurs in the family, a space considered private and where it is difficult to enforce or control what the public policies or legislation officially dictate.

Depending on the ties of the persons among which the violent action takes place and the status of the individual or institution that exercises the violence, it will be considered legitimate or not. The violent relation could be assumed naturally or become invisible to the extent that the link is supposedly hierarchical and of belonging.  The same can happen in the couple. In the marital relation, based on the marriage, the father usually symbolically hands over the daughter to the husband, a reflection of the assumptions and attitudes passed on from generation to generation and that symbolically places the wife as the “property” or “belonging” of the husband and under his guardianship, which gives him rights and authority over her.

Violent action is only classified as such according to its interpretation and assessment, depending on the values and interests that prevail in the society where it takes place and under the same principles it will be the object of censorship or approval. In the patriarchal  system, in general, the fact that women are symbolically subordinate to the men, especially in the sphere of marriage, is naturalised, which leads to the structuration of a system of unquestionable beliefs that confer on the husband the possibility of stipulating the way in which his wife invests her time, the participation in the public sphere, the established social relations, etc.,  thus distorting her autonomy as a citizen and creating a distance between the formal equality (what is legislated) and the substantive or real equality. It is interesting to see how absurd that behaviour seems when as a parody the roles are inverted; however, the lack of criticism with which the tradition is assumed is horrifying.

Though women frequently are unable to relate their unease about being subject to violence, at other times they can identify it, be it because it is a very evident situation or because through diverse means they have become aware of it. However, when a woman is mistreated by her husband and lives under his roof, what does she do?; or when her economic sustenance is the husband, who never lets her work outside the home, how can she survive after a divorce? Beyond the emotional ties, there are also practical situations that lead to the women subjected to violence to frequently seek help, but without the intention of breaking up the relationship.

Who helps a woman subjected to violence?

Not recognising the power imbalance in the man-woman relation in Cuban society is also an obstacle to create effective aid networks for the attention to domestic violence against women. This is demonstrated by the fact that there are no official institutions specialising in the attention to this phenomenon and, therefore, its treatments must remain in the hands of those professionals who, due to their functions, could have contact with women victims of domestic violence, such as physicians and psychologists, in the public health system, and police officers and jurists in the justice system.

Though, as an alternative means, there are the consultations provided in the Houses of Attention to Women and the Family, organised by the Federation of Cuban Women in almost all the country’s municipalities, where a multidisciplinary team must see to these cases, the quality of their social work varies depending on each region’s potentials. These houses work voluntarily and this implies that their work could be unstable or that they continue working without there really being a multidisciplinary team in the group.

There are also the Family Courts, recently created, but they are centred fundamentally on the protection of minors and the problems of couples remain on the margin. Moreover, compared to many other countries, in Cuba a specific law does not exist for the protection of women in the diverse situations in which they can be subjected to violence because of their gender.

On the other hand, the study programmes of the careers of psychology, medicine or law do not obligatorily include gender subjects and the formation in this area must be left in the hands of the post-graduate formation, which differs in each region of the country and, generally, is not one of these institutions’ strong points. Therefore, the aforementioned professionals face the attention of domestic violence not with knowledge received in their training as professionals but rather with the knowledge contributed by their common sense, a result of the socialisation in a patriarchal context.

In Cuba, the public health system is structured so that the family doctors see patients, in their offices as well as in their homes. They come into contact with many women, be it because they go to the doctor’s office or because they are the ones that, in their role of caregivers par excellence accompany the children or the elderly. During their visits to the community these doctors can also find out what happens in the interior of the families they visit, as well as finding out what is happening in the neighbourhood. This together with the fact that the family doctors generally live in the community or close to it. This role of aid givers and the close contact they have with their patients, turn them into informal leaders in the community, with all the power this implies. All the previously mentioned shows that the family doctor can be a key element in the identification and help to women victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, the greatest concentration of psychologists of the Cuban public health system is found in primary health care. They usually work together with the family doctors, who remit to them the cases they consider must be seen to by the psychology doctor’s office. Like the doctors, psychologists have among their functions, in addition to seeing patients in their offices, visiting them in their homes in necessary cases and making field visits to the schools, which is why they also have access to the community.

In relation to the juridical system or justice, as it was already said, there isn’t a specific law against domestic violence or violence against women; therefore, the crimes included in this category are processed in a more general law that collects all crimes and through which it is legislated without distinction of gender. This undoubtedly has as a limiting factor that, when trying as equal those who are unequal, the inequalities continue being favoured. However, even if a law did exist, it is not enough for the protection of women subjected to violence to be efficient, since the execution of the legislated implies the written law as such, as well as the knowledge, attitudes and uses made of it by the operator of law. This is why, exploring the subjectivity of those who apply the law can be an indicator of how it is used, since their sensitivity or lack of it in the face of a certain subject can contribute to the decreasing or strengthening of the voids and limitations that the written law can have.

With these elements as antecedents, the Centre for Gender Studies of the University of Holguín decided to carry out an investigation to identify the behaviour of the knowledge and attitudes of a group of family doctors in the province of Holguín, in Cuba’s eastern region, in the face of domestic violence, as well as that of a group of psychologists. For this a study was carried out between 2010 and 2011 with 18 doctors working in a health area. As it happens, and not very by chance, all of them were women, since they are the ones who, with their glass roof, have more personal obstacles to carry out missions outside the country and stay in their usual posts. Moreover, this specialty has been feminised due to the horizontal segregation that exists in medical studies, among other reasons, because it is one of the most locally studied. During this period 21 psychologists were also studied, 10 of them men and 11 women. In 2013 the same study was also carried out with a group of 28 penal law professionals, 17 of them women and 11 men. An instrument to collect information exploring recognition or not of the myths about domestic violence and understanding of the phenomenon, tolerance in the face of its diverse manifestations and personal implication when faced by a situation where  woman was subject to violence, depending on the degree of closeness to the victim, was applied to them. Out of this investigation, for the sake of synthesising, only the results that called the most attention will be presented4.

How prepared or implicated can these professionals be?

Among the explored women doctors, in the aspects in which lack of knowledge was demonstrated in the most uniform manner, it was related to:

Eighty-nine per cent of the interviewees considered that when a woman is economically independent and even so continues in a violent relationship, it is because she is an especially weak and insecure person.

Seventy-eight per cent thinks that the majority of the men who mistreat their wives do so because they are domineering and violent by nature. In addition, 61 per cent agreed that, in general, when a man mistreats his wife frequently, it is because he has emotional disorders that prevent him from controlling himself.

These three ideas, shared by a high percentage of the consulted group, place emphasis on the understanding of domestic violence as a personal problem, be it because of the woman’s weakness, the man’s emotional disorder or the violent “nature” of some men. This focus ignores the sociocultural roots of the phenomenon and the power relation given in the couple relation. That doctors have no knowledge about this can bring about as a consequence that, on the one hand, they hold women responsible for staying in the abusive relation, for not understanding the cycle of violence or the complexity of the phenomenon. Moreover, if they consider that the man who mistreats is a sick person or a person whose nature makes him thus, and this vision is passed on to the victim patient, far from encouraging her to abandon the relation, because of the socialisation of women as caregivers she will try to remain in it to accompany him in his “suffering”.

On the other hand, when the psychologists were interviewed regarding these same contents, the answers in which, in a more homogeneous manner, they showed lack of knowledge (since more than 60% agreed on this) were about the myths related to the fact that men mistreat and humiliate their wives frequently because they suffer from emotional disorders that do not allow them to contain themselves and the idea that violence in the couple is due to problems with communication.

The fact that a psychologist considers that a man who mistreats is a person with emotional disorders confirms the lack of knowledge about the roots of this problem. In cases such as this one, attempts are made to work with the abuser even though he has not asked for help (women are the ones that usually ask for it). Moreover, the psychologist will try to resolve the problem perhaps based on the symptomatic and external manifestations and not based on the cause that has to do with the power games and the abuses of these powers. However, the adequate treatment must be centred on the woman as the only way to equip her with the tools to make decisions that allow her to get out of the abusive relation.

The view that the problems with communication are the ones that cause violence and not that violence is the one that favours the appearance of the problems with communication makes the management of the problem lead to the form and not to the content, with which one runs the risk that, while working on communication, what happens is that violence is perpetuated, since men are taught to mask it and patients are trained, using more sophisticated forms of communicating, to achieve the control and subjection of the wife without her feeling she is being attacked. If so, the psychologist becomes an accomplice in the situation.

Like the doctors and psychologists, the surveyed jurists tended to consider women who remained in a violent relationship as especially weak and insecure, and to assume that the problems with communication are the ones that generate violence in the couple. In this way they demonstrated once again the lack of knowledge about the characteristics of the phenomenon and that any woman can be involved in a relationship like this one, in addition to the fact that violent relations are the ones that make women weak and insecure, which is the consequence and not the cause of the violent relation.

In the latter group, those who were in leadership posts were also interviewed and it called attention that, when exploring their position with respect to mediation in the cases of domestic violence, all of them were in favour. At times, based on common sense, it is thought that when faced with a conflict in the couple mediation is necessary to avoid the dissolution of the union; however, when this conflict implies a violent relation, where there is evidence of abuse of power, the abused person (which is usually the woman) generally tends to be in psychological conditions that prevent her from making any decision or agreement that is really advantageous to her. The desire to save the relationship is usually behind this position, since in our society at times stability is valued more than the quality of a marriage.

Another of the instruments applied explored the tolerance shown by these professionals in the face of different manifestations of physical, sexual, psychological violence, etc. For this, they were presented with a group of situations where violence was manifested in the couple and they could classify them from null to the maximum expression of violence.

Among the results reflected by the women doctors, what calls attention is that in the sections related to physical violence they all agreed in granting the classification of maximum expression of violence; however, in the situation of sexual violence in which violence without the use of physical force is described, though the majority classified it as maximum expression of violence, six subjects did not classify it this way, seemingly because of the fact that, since it takes place in the framework of the marriage, they naturalise sex as part of the marital duty. This calls attention since generally violence is considered one of the crimes most rejected socially when it takes place between strangers; however, it was viewed with some tolerance by six professionals of medicine, who in addition are women, when taking place in the marriage.

Regarding economic violence and absolute control of the money at home by the men, the answers fluctuated from moderate to maximum expression of violence; in terms of the economic backing for the maintenance of the offspring, the answers varied between null and maximum, with little consensus. In the cases where a greater tolerance was shown in the face of these expressions of violence, it is noted that there still exists the idea of the man as the principal provider and owner of the material and financial goods, an idea that generally is accompanied by making invisible the economic contribution implied by the reproduction of life based on domestic work.

The answers where greater tolerance was shown in the face of the expressions of violence are those related to women’s autonomy, like the control over the clothes they wear, going out alone or with friends and the expressions of jealousy. These answers confirm the belief that the couple is a space of possession toward women, an idea that from the symbolic point of view prevails in the way of thinking of men and women in Cuba.

In general, these conceptions put at risk the possibility of identifying and backing patients victims of domestic violence when they seek help to be treated for other pathologies, since even though violence against women is considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a health problem, in Cuba there are no mechanisms to give the phenomenon a differentiated treatment.

Meanwhile, the surveyed psychologists gave very similar answers, which is why I will only mention the ones that called the most attention. In almost all the sections, except in those that remained the same, the women psychologists gave the violent situations a higher classification than the males’, although in general only one more gradient. Everything indicates that the experience as women favours a greater sensitivity in the face of the problem, despite the fact that the difference was small, since the women psychologists have been educated under the same patriarchal ideology. All the women and men psychologists classified with a higher percentage the expressions of physical and sexual violence and expressed greater tolerance in the face of psychological violence whether of silence, economic control or the limitation of autonomy. This answer is interesting since supposedly psychologists must be the best trained professionals and, therefore, sensitised to recognising the dangers of psychological violence; however, their replies do not reflect this. Interestingly, the fact that in the situation of violence in the marriage without the use of physical force the average of women tended to classify it as maximum expression of violence while the average of men responded with two gradients less, demonstrates that the gender of belonging can have an influence in the way of perceiving and, therefore, managing this phenomenon even in the general doctor’s office.

There were very similar answers among the jurists, among which once again there was consensus in considering psychological violence as less strong than the others, especially the one that implies the limitation of autonomy of women, especially with respect to the use of their time. All these answers are the reflection of a patriarchal ideology that still perceives women as subordinated to the decisions of the men.

Another matter that was explored with the surveyed population was if they considered adequate or not to get involved in offering to help a woman subject to violence – without her asking for it -, when the couple involved is their parents, their mothers and stepfathers, their daughters and their couple, a friend and her couple, a patient (or client) and her couple, a neighbour and her couple, a work comrade and her couple and an unknown woman in a public place and her couple.

In the results of the surveyed women doctors there was a tendency to get involved in an aid relationship, without it having been requested, only when it was between the parents and the mother and stepfather, or the daughter and her couple or the sister and her couple; however, if it was a friend, the majority said they would not get involved and, when referring to a patient, half of the interviewees said they would not get involved and the other that they would. Based on this level, the decision prevailed of not getting involved when the persons involved were neighbours, work comrades or strangers.

When applying the same technique to the psychologists, the reply was very similar, since the men as well as women tend to get involved only when the woman was their relative, like the mother, daughter and sister. It stood out that, when a friend was alluded to, the tendency in the answers of the men was to say that they did not get involved, while the women said they would. From here on, if it was a neighbour, work comrade or a stranger, the tendency was to respond that they would not get involved.

The answers given by the jurists do not differ much from what was said by the doctors and psychologists, since they said – the men as well as the women –  that they would only get involved if the victim was a family member or a friend.

All the answers by doctors, psychologists and jurists denote the conception there is of the couple as a private and intimate space that is justified to transgress in case of a strong affective and family link with the victim. This denotes that domestic violence is considered a private and not a social problem.

Another element is that, at least one person in each group of psychologists, doctors and jurists said they would get involved to help the mother if she had an abusive relation with the father, but that they would not do so if it was between the mother and the stepfather, demonstrating that more than the violence in itself (since in both situations reference was made to their mother) what they asses is the relational context that exists, which makes them give greater importance to the fact that as a couple they belong to each other than feeling committed to helping the mother.

By way of conclusion…

The results presented are proof that the surveyed professionals (of both sexes) are bearers of a patriarchal ideology that presupposes women’s subordination to men in the couple relation. This is demonstrated in the fact that they express high tolerance in the face of signs of violence involving the limitation of women’s autonomy and the control of material goods. Moreover, they carry ideas that denote a lack of knowledge about the magnitude of the phenomenon and the belief that it only happens to a certain type of woman. On the other hand, they perceive domestic violence as a personal and private problem and not as a social problem. It stands out that in the study contradictions were found in the answers obtained, since in general when asked if they considered domestic violence as a private problem they responded negatively, but when they were placed in the face of the situation of having to say if they would get involved in a situation like this, they said they would do so only if it were a family matter. That is, it is a social problem but they do not get involved.

Though the survey was carried out in Holguín, its results must not be far from the reality of the country, since the study plans are homogeneous and we are under the influence of the same culture that, though with different nuances in all of Cuba, does not detract from the fact that it is sexist. Moreover, there is no reference of any region where this problem is treated in a systematic and systemic manner.

The prevalence of a patriarchal ideology that makes invisible the need to study in depth these matters during the professional formation of doctors, psychologists and jurists, together with the lack of specialised institutional mechanisms for the attention to the problem of domestic violence, strengthens the idea that this problem must have a solution from the individual and the private point of view. However, a woman subjected to violence usually needs a great deal of help to be able to get out of the cycle of violence. This situation places Cuban women who are victims of domestic violence in a very unprotected situation. This is a problem for women, but not of women, which is why it becomes indispensable, for the sake of social justice, that all of society, the State and the government take it more seriously. The time has come to view in a broader way women’s issues. Women’s achievements should not only be in the public sphere; the private is also political. (2014)

1 Proveyer, Clotilde: “La naturalización de la violencia de género en mujeres cubanas. Algunos apuntes para una campaña permanente”, in Desde otra perspectiva, Editorial de la Mujer. 2011.

2 Ferrer, Dunia: “Violencia y relaciones de pareja. Un análisis desde el género”, in Desde otra perspectiva, Editorial de la Mujer. 2011.

3 Batista, Y.: “Violencia y relaciones de pareja. Un acercamiento desde el enfoque personológico”, diploma paper, Cacocum Municipal University Venue, University of Holguín, 2011.

4 Cruz, R.: “La formación profesional del médico de familia y la violencia contra la mujer”, pre-graduate thesis of psychology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Holguín, 2010; Moscoso, K.: “La preparación profesional del jurista para la atención a la mujer violentada”, pre-graduate thesis of psychology, Faculty of Humanities, University of  Holguín, 2012; Torralbas, Aida: “El psicólogo clínico y la violencia contra la mujer”, thesis to obtain the Masters in General Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, University of Havana, 2010; and “Saberes y vivencias del jurista penalista sobre la violencia de género contra la mujer en la relación conyugal”, thesis to obtain the Masters in Gender Studies, Faculty of Psychology, University of Havana, 2014.

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