Counselling for Intimate Partner Violence against Women

by Chulani Kodikara

More and more women in Sri Lanka are breaking the silence surrounding intimate partner violence against women (IPVW) to a third person outside their immediate family and friends and seeking formal institutional support to address the problem. This has to be attributed to both consciousness-raising programmes held through workshops, publications and media campaigns that have sought to frame IPVW as a women’s human rights issue as well as the existence of institutions, state and non-state, willing to receive complaints and support women survivors of such violence. State institutions include Police Children and Women Bureau Desks, Hospital Desks and micro-level public officers such as Women Development Officers (WDOS) and counsellors attached to Divisional Secretariats who are taking up such complaints. The non-state organisations providing these services include those working on issues pertaining to women, youth, or development and community or faith-based organisations). Counselling is often the first point of contact in a line of services offered and provided by most organisations. But what is counselling for IPVW? In this short essay, I reflect on the history of feminist mobilisations around IPVW and what constitutes counselling from a feminist perspective.

Photo: Beyond Borders blog
Photo: Beyond Borders blog

The emergence of intimate partner violence as a feminist issue can be traced to the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s. Personal stories of domestic violence shared at community meeting places of women, rape crisis centres, consciousness-raising groups and neighbourhood empowerment groups helped grass roots feminists develop an analysis of the nature and root causes of this violence, as well as the responses required to support survivors. Feminist analyses located this violence within the broader socio-political structures of gender inequality, including women’s inferior position within the family, discrimination within the workplace, wage inequity, lack of educational opportunities, the absence of social support for mothering and lack of child care as well as high levels of violence against women in the public sphere. Thus IPVW from this perspective is located along a continuum of violence experienced by women throughout their life cycle from the private sphere of the home to the public sphere. Moreover, physical abuse was seen as a particular moment in a larger continuum of power exercised over women that might include emotional abuse, sexual abuse and rape, and other manoeuvres to control, isolate, exclude, threaten, intimidate or stalk. This analysis reframed the understanding of domestic violence from an apolitical, individual problem to a profoundly social and political issue.

A feminist analysis of IPVW thus challenges entrenched beliefs that women are somehow to blame or must have done something to provoke the abuse and are therefore deserving of it. Accountability, which is central to the feminist approach, emphasises that men have to be held responsible for their actions, that no woman deserves to be beaten, and that both women and men can control their behaviour and have a right to physical safety. A feminist approach also emphasises the need for fundamental socio-cultural and institutional changes as well as a shift in social responses to individual victims and perpetrators to end such violence

Early activists working on the issue of battering, especially in the UK and USA, learnt all too soon what individual survivors had known for too long: that there was no government agency that could be approached to meet the immediate needs of women who sought support, assistance and redress. This led, firstly, to the establishment of shelters and centres for women, which in time evolved to provide a range of services such as 24-hour hotlines, referral services, and crisis counselling and, secondly, to demands for legal reform given the ‘legal void’ when it came to considering intimate partner violence as a crime and societal perceptions of battering as a private matter. These early efforts grew to become the global movement against intimate partner violence that we know today, which in turn has led to a proliferation of intervention services as well as movements for legal and institutional reform.

Counselling is an important aspect of these services. The goal of a feminist counselling practice is empowerment of survivors to take control of their lives and enable them to find strength and power within themselves to make informed and self-directed choices. Empowerment is to be achieved through a gradual and incremental process which includes women’s experiences and perceptions, supporting them to access and express their often long–silenced voices, providing information about and linking them to a wide range other support services and resources, assisting them with making plans for their safety and security and supporting them in acquiring new skills for participating in life. It does all this while according the survivor control of the counselling process.

As part of this process, and flowing from the analysis of IPVW as a political problem, counselling is also a space to connect the personal and the political and an opportunity for consciousness-raising or psycho-education on the patriarchal nature of our society, public institutions and domestic arrangements. It is an arena to equip and build the capacity of women to question myths about abusive relationships, which blame women and reinforce feelings of shame, hopelessness and isolation, and replace these with new and positive cognitions. It is these aspects of counselling that are particularly relevant to this study.

It should be noted, however, that there is a radical feminist critique of the idea of individual empowerment as a goal of counselling as either not possible or as limiting. According to Whalen, “…the primary problem with the notion of individual empowerment is that it shifts the locus of responsibility, the identified source of the problem, from the social and material to the individual. The logical next step then is to develop therapeutic goals directed at ‘healing’ the individual through cognitive change”. Thus, a radical conception of feminist counselling would go beyond merely pointing out or exploring an individual’s experience of violence from a feminist perspective to also talking about the need for social and cultural change and the role of survivors in such change. Such a conception of counselling practice entails bringing together women in similar circumstances for reflection, debate, and discussion as well as collective social and political action. Group counselling therefore occupies a particularly privileged position within a radical feminist counselling paradigm, as groups are considered to provide a rich forum where women who have been silenced and isolated in abusive relationships can begin to realise that they are neither alone nor responsible for the violence and to share their experiences, feelings, fears and hopes. The end goal here is not merely individual empowerment but empowerment of the group as a whole to work towards social and institutional change. From this perspective, individual counselling, particularly when it is prolonged is seen as reinforcing more traditional approaches that blame and pathologise women.

It should also be noted that there are several other theories that provide alternative and competing ways of making meaning of IPVW. One relates to theories that focus on the individual psychopathology of the batterer and/or the survivor. According to psychological theories of IPVW, individual personality traits such as emotional dependency, excessive jealousy, poor social skills, patterns of poor self-control, low self-esteem, and immaturity may act as predisposing, precipitating or perpetuating factors. Similarly psychiatric disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse (particularly alcohol), and severe personality disorders are considered risk factors. Stressors such as poverty and/or unemployment have also been described as precipitants or maintaining factors of violence. Theories relating to the inter-generational transmission of violence, including learnt behaviour theories that examine whether perpetrators witnessed abuse as children or were abused themselves also fall within this category of analysis.

Some psychological theories also focus on the pathology of survivors, arguing that those who are battered and who remain in battered relationships are more pathological and more deeply troubled than the men who batter them. Some psychiatrists have attributed domestic violence to the victim’s inherent sexual and biological problems or regard battering as related to women’s masochism, where women are seen first as provoking battering and then remaining in battering relationships.

Another approach derived from family systems theory focuses on interpersonal factors characterising violent relationships. This approach explains violence between intimates as a product of the family system, where the family is viewed as a dynamic organisation of interdependent but individual members that continually interact with one another. An aggressive action by a husband towards his wife, from this theoretical perspective, results in a reaction by another family member (e.g., calling police, taking refuge in a women’s shelter), which in turn affects the probability of aggressive behaviour in the future. Violence is thought to be maintained through the roles, relations and feedback mechanisms that regulate and stabilise the system. If violence is rewarded by the system, it is more likely to re-occur. Over time, the dynamic may become so established that it becomes a challenge to interrupt this pattern of violence.

These differing ways of making meaning of IPVW have important implications for counselling practice and interventions. Cunningham et al. take the view that this is an area where the link between theory and practice is quite explicit. Where IPVW is attributed to individual psychopathologies of men, the focus of treatment is the perpetrator and identification of his psychological profile. In a family system approach, counselling typically involves couples and family therapies on the assumption that couples can be taught to reduce their violent interactions. They are nevertheless highly controversial.

I do not discount or dismiss individual or family relations centred explanations of IPVW but take a feminist integrative approach. Such an approach recognises that intimate partner violence is multiply determined and is a result of male abuse of power over women, escalation of relational dynamics as well as individual factors. From such a perspective social and institutional change, re-socialisation to egalitarian viewpoints, and psychological explorations can all serve as useful interventions, provided that a feminist approach remains central to counselling practice. In terms of counselling models, in addition to individual counselling and therapy with the perpetrator and survivor, couples therapy can also be employed as a treatment approach, provided there is a clear moral framework that holds the man fully accountable for his use of violence. An integrative approach would also be sympathetic to attempts at understanding the psychological and relational underpinnings of violence as a way to deter it, but never excuse it.

These models of counselling were of course developed in the global north, in settings where individual freedom and transformation, personal autonomy, self-development etc. are taken for granted and indeed naturalised. A recent study undertaken by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) explores counselling practices in Sri Lanka and to what extent they are commensurable with feminist principles (see Balancing Acts: Counselling for Intimate Partner Violence in Anuradhapura and Batticaloa by Chulani Kodikara, December 2014). ICES has also developed a set of guidelines for counsellors from a woman centred perspective.

Chulani Kodikara is a Senior Researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.