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Kiss with a Fist – Domestic Violence Against Women in Thailand - Joana Stella Kompa, Program Director for Multimedia Design and Visual Communication at Raffles International College, Bangkok, Thailand.
Domestic Violence: A Brief Description
Based on an international landmark study by the World-Health Organization (WHO, 2006; Garcia-Moreno et al., 2006), domestic violence in Thailand ranks high in the categories of sexual violence and combined sexual and physical violence, with higher prevalence in rural areas (Garcia-Moreno et al., p. 1265). A survey by Mahidol University’s National Institute for Child and Family Development in 2012 reported a sharp increase in domestic abuse encompassing 30.8 % of all Thai households. Divorce-rates in Thailand increased correspondingly from 10.8 percent in 2009 to 33 percent in 2012 (DW, 2013), indicating a serious problem in gender relations.
Socio-cultural norms and upbringing appear to serve as priming factors predisposing to future domestic violence. Thai men are traditionally encouraged from adolescence to go out and ‘have fun’ (Thai: ‘bai tiao’), which includes visitations of commercial sex workers and drinking with peers, maladaptive behavioral patterns supportive of poor self-control that usually continue into adulthood. Young women are obliged to stay at home and take care of the family. Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1983, 2001) at first glance fits this process best. Men learn to socially disconnect from family responsibility while women are dehumanized to primarily facilitate men’s sexual needs. Thai wives who follow such gender traditionalism and who are economically dependent on their husbands are at significantly greater risk of domestic violence (Xiaohe & Sirisunyaluck, 2011). Frustration-aggression (Berkowitz, 1969) and subsequent anger develops when the lower socio-economic status of Thai men, combined with lower education, leads to stress or failure in fulfilling their role for family and marriage (Hoffman et. al, 1994; Gelles, 1974). The frustration is based on the cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) of dominant males experiencing self-esteem threat, low prestige, low status, inadequacy (Gelles & Straus, 1988) and relative deprivation (Myers & Twenge, 2013, p.360-362). Triggers and cues for violence are typically verbal confrontations by women voicing out their unhappiness and men demanding role compliance (Hoffman, p.141).
Facilitating factors are wide-spread alcoholism to unleash aggression (Assanangkornchai et al., 2010; Srisurapanont et al., 2011; Myers & Twenge, p.358), infidelity, gambling and financial debt (The Nation, 2013) as well as societal trends such as the reduction of of three-generation families to nuclear families (Hoffman, p.143). Thai TV-shows frequently demonstrate the beating and slapping of women as socially acceptable behavior, desensitizing audiences (Myers & Twenge, p.377) fitting with script theory as a subset of social learning theory (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p.31). Thai children exposed to domestic violence likewise internalize domestic conflict as available violent scripts (Kerley et al., 2002). Such internalized schemata tend to play out later in life such as, for example, in high school (Sherer & Sherer, 2014).
A Real-Life Scenario
The problem of domestic violence shall be illustrated with a real-life story to model a typical context before discussing theory. Journalists of the German ‘Deutsche Welle’ interviewed Jaded Chouwilai, director of the Thai human rights group ‘Women and Men Progressive Movement Foundation’, who recollects the following case:
‘A woman named Suphaksorn turned to Jaded’s Foundation for support after being abused by her former boyfriend. She told DW that her ex-boyfriend got married to another woman and when she wanted to end their relationship, the guy became aggressive. “He brought a gun to my office and threatened to kill me if I didn’t behave normally,” Suphaksorn said. “After that, things turn abusive – he would smack me and bang my head against the wall, against the bed. He also tried to stab me,” she added.’ (DW, 2013)
Thai men, as men in other cultures, are brought up with a cognitive belief, in form of a belief of entitlement, that they can have relationships with multiple women but women are supposed to stay faithful to the same man and under no circumstances can have relationships with other men. If such violation of the belief occurs, even hypothetically, extreme jealousy and rage is unleashed. Needless to say that such belief is bound to fail when meeting social reality. In terms of Festinger’s Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957) his version of the ‘Belief Disconfirmation Paradigm’ (Festinger, 1956) would be most adequate to frame the implications of such a belief, this is when people are confronted with external information opposing their most salient beliefs. The man’s girlfriend protesting (questioning his belief) while he has already married another woman is such information creating non-congruence threatening belief disconfirmation. In this case the threat of belief disconfirmation is justified by acts of violence, equally based on the belief of absolute entitlement (‘I am allowed to punish any women for their wrongdoing’). In explicitly patriarchic cultures such as Islam social norms are identical with cultural norms and practice, e.g., Morse et al. (2012) report that 88% of Jordanian women believe in the justification of wife beating, in particular for insulting, disobeying and arguing with the husband (Morse, 2012, p. 27). The dominant role of the husband is not disputed, but internalized instead.
Men’s frustration and subsequent anger of not being able to provide well for his wife and children, especially in impoverished rural areas, could be interpreted by frustration-aggression hypothesis (Berkowitz, 1969) as a variation of cognitive dissonance theory. The self-belief of being a strong partner and husband is challenged by social reality, disrupting cognitive contingency (Festinger, 1957) and causing tension which is released by aggressive and violent behavior. According to Festinger, cognitive dissonance is most powerful when it involves self-image. The interpretation fits with findings of Schumacher et al. (2004), linking behavioral- and attitude change from typical- to violent behavior when paired with verbal conflict and jealousy (Schumacher & Slep, 2004). A more specific hypothesis has been suggested by Koolen and colleagues (2012). The authors write that “Overall, the ﬁndings suggest that proactive aggression is predicted by egocentric and disagreeable tendencies, whereas reactive aggression is predicted by poor self-regulation and the misattribution of blame to others.” (Koolen et al., 2012, p. 786). This means that proactive aggression appears primarily based on personality traits while reactive aggression is grounded on poor self-regulation.
This differentiation helps to suggest different types of interventions. For addressing poor self-control, interventions based on reality therapy, problem-solving and multi-modal frameworks, especially in community settings, have proven to be the most promising approaches (McGuire, 2008, p.2588). The reduction of cognitive dissonance by women avoiding, trivializing and downplaying the seriousness of their partner’s violent acts (Zaitman, 1999) to restore cognitive harmony would be a further example (‘No marriage is perfect’, ‘He did not mean this intentionally’, ‘We still can still make this work’, ‘Maybe it is my fault’ etc.). On a social level the public justification of intimate partner violence could be interpreted in a similar light (Waltermaurer, 2012). It becomes obvious that the traditional upbringing of boys and young men combined with low parental demands are the root of the Thai malaise.
I like to close with a personal observation. In a Thai family close to a friend of mine with a younger, 11-year old son and his five years older foster sister, the younger boy was given all privileges while his sister acted de factor his designated servant. He would not have to enroll in any duties such as washing the dishes or cleaning the house and was never counseled when eating food that was reserved for his sister. His mother would praise him continuously while his sister, although diligent and well-mannered, was blamed for the smallest issues. At age 11 the boy could not tie his shoelaces, but he had already learned how to enjoy controlling his sister by setting her up against his mother. The example highlights that self-image (the boy is going to be a proud man) is not identical with autonomy and that his sister’s servitude deprives him of developing any competence to deal with real-life problems and relationships. Ill-conditioning appears to start early in life. Cognitive dissonance necessarily arises when learned and conditioned egocentricity and poor self-control meet justified social demands by others.
As demonstrated, not a single theory fully explains the interplay of multiple processes leading to aggression and domestic violence against women, supporting the general aggression model (GAM) proposed by Anderson and Bushman (2002). According to GAM, inputs are dominant social roles of men (the person variable) into a situation where traditional gender role expectations cannot be met. The employed routes in this conflicting process are affect and arousal due to poor-self control with little cognitive moderation. Outcomes are subsequently impulsive actions that serve as a template for future violent social encounters and habitual behavioral cycles (Anderson & Bushman, p.34). Liza Romanow points out other social consequences of promoting discriminative social norms for Thai women such as the low participation in parliament, the exploitation as factory workers and sad role in human sex trafficking (Romanow, 2012).
Thailand has introduced since 2007 ‘The Protection of Domestic Violence Victims Act’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2011) and the act’s implementation is only as useful as the support that women can obtain locally. This entails, for example, the availability of skilled social workers and not policemen who themselves take a chauvinist perspective towards female victims or who are reluctant to help because they see domestic violence as a private matter, as Mo Ngyuen points out (ChiangmaiNews, 2013). Domestic violence is too serious of an issue to be denied public discussion as a taboo. Besides, long-term social change is only possible by changing the traditional cultural norms and parenting styles that have created a dead-end street for so many young women and men.
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