Femicide is a symptom, not a cause | Aleksander Dimitrijevic

ALEKSANDER DIMITRIJEVIC, of the NGO ‘Men Against Violence’, argues that only a long-term, political commitment to culture-change, can address the historic problem of male violence against women

Aleksander Dimitrijevic (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Aleksander Dimitrijevic (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

‘Men Against Violence’: it’s almost something that shouldn’t even need to be said, isn’t it? In theory, all human beings – male or female – should be opposed to violence (even if just for the sake self-preservation). Yet we all know this is not really the case.  Is this part of the statement your organisation is trying to make? That we need to be reminded that ‘men should be against violence’… because some men, at least, are not?

Let me start with this. ‘Violence against women’ is a historic problem. It is not something that has suddenly cropped up, out of nowhere, in recent years. Nonetheless, it is a historic problem that is still with us – mostly unchanged – to this day.

But when we talk about these issues – gender-based violence; domestic violence, violence targeting women, and so on… and you can extend this to almost any other issue concerning women: single mothers, equality at the place-of-work, etc. – the focus is always on the victim. We provide support services to victims of violence, for instance. But while this is all well and good… it is still a case of treating only the ‘symptom’, and not the ‘cause’.

This is, in fact, the way society always tends to approach such problems: we react only to the specific act of violence itself… and even then, only after it has already happened. But then, we seem to overlook the fact that, in the vast majority of such cases, the violence would have been initiated, and perpetrated, by… men.

Naturally, I am not going to say that ‘no woman has ever been violent’; because that would be blatantly untrue. But the vast majority of violence that takes place in society – whether specifically targeting women, or not – is undeniably perpetrated by men. This is a statistical proven fact; but it is also something that usually gets left out of the discussion.

It was partly for this reason that we felt the need, in 2014, to set up ‘Men Against Violence’. We felt it was important to at least bring up the idea, in public, that men CAN be opposed to violence – any form of violence – and that we can actively work towards ‘doing something about it’. By asking ourselves, for instance, ‘what can be changed’… ‘what can be done better’…

And in this, we are naturally aligned with other groups – mostly women’s rights organisations – that have been struggling with this problem for decades, if not centuries. Our view is that there is a role that men can play: especially, in those areas where women are excluded; or which they don’t have any access to.

Examples might include ‘locker-room talk’; the way men talk about women among themselves, for instance; or how men react to the actions of other men, in such cases…

You talk about gender-based women as a ‘historic problem’; but while that is certainly true, there seems to the impression – greatly reinforced by (but not limited to) the recent murder of Paulina Dembska – that it is also on the increase. You yourself recently posted a reminder of the many Maltese women who have been victims of femicide, in one form or another, over the years. Do you see the problem as escalating?

I’m not so sure that this ‘impression’ you’re talking about, is in itself anything new. People who work in this field – especially, women’s rights movements – have been aware of the problem, and talking about it, for a very long time.

But the trouble is that these things are, and have always been, ‘hidden’. Violence against women has always been there; but it has always mostly taken place behind closed doors.  So the people on the frontline – the social workers, the NGOs, and all the agencies involved – are well aware of how extensive, and persistent, the problem is; and that it keeps on happening, over and over again. And they are also aware of certain failures of the system, sometimes.

But yes, there has certainly been more public awareness recently; and this is, after all, to be expected. Because if something keeps on happening, over and over again… sooner or later, it will exceed the tipping point. The pressure keeps building up, behind the scenes; only to eventually explode, like a dam bursting…

Another factor, however, has been the Internet, and the proliferation of social media. This is, at the end of the day, quite a recent phenomenon; and whatever its other flaws, social media does help a lot, to bring awareness out. Women hear other women speak; and it encourages them to come forward with their own stories… and it also gives women more ways to bring their message out: to ask why these things continue to happen; and what can be done about it.

On the subject of ‘failures of the system’: as a journalist, I have observed a noticeable trend in gender-based violence cases. We often see stories about (mostly young) men, who resort to violence in reaction to a perceived ‘loss of male control’: for instance, an inability to accept being rejected.  Why are so many young men – and I emphasise their age, because they are products of today’s generation – still clinging to such archaic, ‘possessive’ attitudes? Do you see this as a systemic failure, too?

It’s not an easy question to answer, because – as Dr Marceline Naudi put it, in another interview – there is a whole spectrum to be taken into account here. Domestic violence; sexual violence; harassment; stalking; intimidation; bullying… these things are all intertwined, at a certain level.

But when you start looking at where, or how, such attitudes originate… generally, it all points in the same direction. It’s all about the status of women in our society: how societies have traditionally perceived women throughout history… going all the way back to ancient mythologies. What roles have traditionally been assigned to women? And how does society expect women to act, and behave… or even just to ‘be’?

At the same time, however, this also creates ‘expectations’ on the other side. What is a ‘man’ supposed to be, in our society? How is a ‘man’ supposed to act, and behave? Culturally, our answers to some of these questions have evolved, over time:  but there is undeniably a ‘macho culture’ that still exists. Because, for generation after generation, men have always been brought up in a patriarchal society; so these ideas of ‘male privilege’… that a man should be expect a certain type of treatment; to be the ‘breadwinner’, for instance; or even, perhaps, to disguise his own emotions, for fear of appearing ‘unmanly’… these things have very deep roots. We have been ‘soaking them in’ – as, again, Dr Naudi put it – for centuries, upon centuries.

So yes: even young people, who have gone through 10 years of schooling… they have absorbed those attitudes too: whether they realise it or not. And this is also what I meant earlier, by ‘treating the symptom, not the cause’.

If you ask me, this is in fact one of the main reasons why the patriarchy is still so pervasive, to this day. When it comes to services, for instance – and this happens all over the world; not just here – the emphasis is primarily on punitive justice. Because obviously, we are talking about ‘violence’; so you have to deal with the victim, and also with the perpetrator.

So the police, the social agencies, the judiciary… all their efforts are, understandably, concentrated in this one direction: ‘an act of violence has occurred; the victim must be supported; the aggressor must be brought to justice’; and so on. And of course, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. It all plays a part; and an important part, too.

But… once again, it still remains a case of dealing with the problem only retro-actively, and on a case-by-case basis. We respond to violence, yes; but only after it has already happened. And this, I think, explains in part why the underlying culture is not actually changing, all that much.

Because to achieve any real change, we have to somehow also address all those expectations, and societal perceptions, that have been brought about by that culture. And that is not easy…

Nonetheless, it is a task that your organisation has set out to at least attempt. So… how do you propose going about it? What needs to be done, in practical terms, to bring about this culture change?

The one thing that is needed the most, I would say, is political will. And I’m talking about ‘Politics-with-a-Capital-P’ here… because we live in a country where that [politics] is the only area where decisions can truly be made.

Then again, however: it’s not a question of simply drawing up the right legislation – though that would certainly help – because legislation, without policy, is… just words on a piece of paper, at the end of the day.

So what we need, first and foremost, is a long-term political commitment: to at least kick-start the process of trying to change these cultural attitudes. That would include, among many other things, what we give priority to in our educational system. There is a lot that can be done, though education, to prevent certain ‘stereotypes’ from developing. Not just through programmes to prevent violence against women – something which is already happening, in our schools – but also through positive messages: about, for instance, what it means to have ‘power-equality’, in personal relationships…. or what constitutes ‘acceptable’, or ‘unacceptable’ behaviour…

But we also have to acknowledge that the underlying causes are so deep-rooted, and multi-faceted, that it might take anywhere up to 20, or 25 years, before we can even begin gauging the first results. And this is clearly a problem, because – as we all know – the political cycle is much, much shorter than that. Politicians need to have tangible results to show for their efforts… in the short term.

Unfortunately, from this perspective: violence against women is not ‘sexy’, as a political issue. It’s not something that any politician can suddenly step up and say: ‘Look: these are our results; this is what we have achieved, over the past five years…’

How much ‘political will’ is there at present, though? ‘MAV’ has existed for six years now; and I assume you’ve had meetings with government, opposition, and so on. What sort of feedback are you getting? Do you see any sign of ‘commitment’?

Well, there is certainly a lot of good will from all sides. And not just in politics, either: from my own experience talking to people in general, I would say that most people clearly agree with what we are generally saying. Because after all, who would want violence in our society? Nobody, really. So it is ultimately a perfectly normal, natural human response: when it comes to recognising what the problem is… and how important it is to solve it… there is no disagreement whatsoever.

But there are obstacles; and they are difficult to overcome. Just to give you one example: in 2013, the Education Department came out with a document, for public consultation, about ‘Bullying, and the Prevention of Bad Behaviour in Schools’. There was a previous policy document, already in place; but it needed upgrading; and what the Department came up with was innovative, well-researched, and very, very detailed. Twenty-eight pages, with specific proposals on how tackle this, or that aspect of the problem… and, among other things, it also included specific references to gender-based violence; sexual violence; harassment; and on so on.

That was in 2013. But by June the following year – after the consultation period was over – that document had been reduced by three pages: from 28, to 25… and I’m not saying that what remained, was in any way ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’… but let’s just say that all the more ‘innovative’ aspects – all the best parts, quite frankly - had been removed, in the meantime…

At the risk of playing the devil’s advocate: couldn’t there have been practical reasons for those redactions? After all, it’s not the first time that the Education Department has imposed sudden changes on the educational system… only for schools to complain that – while the ideas are great – they just don’t have the necessary resources to comply?

Yes, yes… that is no doubt part of it, too. Again, I’m not suggesting that there was resistance, in the sense that people didn’t agree with the aims of the reforms. Of course, the schools agreed; of course, they want to have workable policies in place, for how to prevent bullying, and so on…

But the reason I gave that example, is that it also illustrates just how complex this problem is. Because it’s not just a case of drawing up the right policies… the people implementing those policies – schools, in this case – must also be given the necessary resources, to actually do that.

And this, too, is what I meant by a ‘long-term, political commitment’. It’s not enough to have ‘good will’; what we need is a long-term vision; and enough political determination to make it work…