Monday, December 5, 2011

Stresses on the family and domestic violence in Aruba

Merviné Kock, Lilian Felter and Lily Marval

1 Introduction

Family structures have undergone a lot of changes for the last decades. Due to rises in the cost of living on the island of Aruba, most women are compelled to take on one or more jobs to provide for their families. This means that mothers are constantly away from home and children are often home alone for many hours, because there is a lack of affordable and structured childcare on the island. Single mothers are the ones that face the biggest problems regarding childcare and child support. The number of single mothers is increasing yearly. The absence of the father has consequences for the mother and for the children. For many reasons, mothers choose to take care of their children without the support of the father. One of these reasons is domestic violence. Every day, there are reported cases of domestic violence on the island and the situation is getting worse. For every reported case, there are many cases that go unreported, because people feel ashamed to talk about negative things that happen at home. In this preliminary study, we try to shed light on the family structure, the role of the father within the family and domestic violence on the island of Aruba.

2 Changes in family structure and stress on families

The family is a social institution that’s binds two or more individuals into a primary group to the extent that the members of the group are related to one another on the basis of blood relationships, affinity or some other symbolic network of association (United Nations, 2003). The family is also the essential pillar upon which all society is built. A phenomenon that is characteristic of the family is constant change. The dynamic character of the family has an important impact on a host of other social institutional spheres (United Nations, 2003). Ideally, the family provides its members with protection, companionship, security, and socialization. The structure of the family and the needs that the family fulfills vary from society to society (Slideshare, 2009). The nuclear family two adults and their children is the main unit in some societies. In others, it is a subordinate part of an extended family, which also consists of grandparents and other relatives. A third family type is the single parent family, in which children live with an unmarried, divorced, or widowed mother or father (Slideshare, 2009).
In the Caribbean there are several types of family structures. These families have had to deal with a history of large scale demographic, economic, political and social change (Barrow, 1996). There are four predominant types of family structure in the Caribbean: the marital union, the common law union[1], the visiting union and the single parent family (Single Parent Center, 2010). In the Caribbean context, its seems to be a fact that the women take on the roles of
both the man and the woman when it comes to rearing the children (Barrow, 1996; Marcha & Verweel, 2008; Bos, 2008)One can argue that this is also the case in Aruba. The Aruban family is usually multiethnic in composition, and as such the roles of fathers and mothers are often defined in diverse ways (, 2008). One factor that differentiates Arubans from other Caribbean islanders is that Arubans did not experience plantation slavery and the national identity was forged through the encounter between poor European descended colonists and Amerindians, with more limited participation by African descended peoples.

Over the past decades the family structure in Aruba has undergone many changes, such that the traditional family structure is at risk. In the era of our parents, the extended family structure consisted of mothers, fathers, children and a host of other relatives. Besides bringing up their own children, adults took care of the children of their kin and other children in the neighborhood. Fathers were employed outside the home and mothers stayed home to take care of the children, to do the chores and to manage the household.

Due to immigration, Aruba has become a multicultural society, and each incoming group has brought with it different kinds of family structures. Today, families in Aruba belong principally to the following categories: matrifocal (female-headed families), extended, compound, nuclear, and one-parent families (Barrow, 1996; MBZK, 2010). Mothers have a nurturing role in the family and are usually responsible for taking care of the children and household chores. The number of female-headed households has increased dramatically during the last decades, and, at the present time, there are approximately 6000 female-headed families on the island, which has a total population of some 100,000 people.

During the 1990s, Aruba’s economy grew quickly and there was an insufficient number of workers to fill all the existing vacancies. These labor shortages lead to a relaxation of immigration policy (Nos Aruba 2025, 2010) and as a result, the shortages in the labor market were reduced by the admission of several thousand foreign workers, many of them women. By 2000, the number of female immigrants living on Aruba had risen to 16,585. In addition, the government extended the retirement age for locals and women were encouraged to become part of the labor market. The rate of participation of women in the labor market rose dramatically, and stood at 57.8 % in 2009.

Another important factor that caused women to join the labor force is the increasing divorce rates, which have now reached 70% (CBS, 2010). Besides its negative impact on children, divorce usually results in female-headed households, where women struggle to find work or are trapped in jobs that pay low wages. The income of the husband is withdrawn, and many women find themselves in a losing battle to obtain support from fathers for their children. Some women who cannot afford after-school child-care are forced to quit their jobs and go on welfare, but welfare payments are well below the poverty line. Others choose to stay employed while their children stay home alone after school and fend for themselves.

24.2% of all female-headed households live under the poverty line, which is set at 1985 florin per month for a single mother with one child, at 3176 florin per month for a single mother with two children, and at 3772 florin per month for a single mother with three children (CBS, 2005; 2010). The minimum wage is 1542,90 florin per month and the average welfare payment roughly half of that figure, meaning that all single mothers who earn a minimum wage or who are on welfare are living under the poverty line.

When single mothers are forced to work, there are negative consequences for their families as well as for society at large ( CBS, 2009; WGK, 2011). In 2010, 148 children were born to teenage mothers, 58.4 % of registered births were to single mothers and about 56% of out of wedlock births were to mothers aged between 20 and 29 years (CBS, 2010). Child legislation equalises the rights of children born out of wedlock to those born in wedlock, but most fathers do not fulfil their legal obligations to their children.

The changes in family structure that children experience during their lives are not without consequences. Researchers in Western societies have found that children from father-absent homes manifest a number of problematic behaviors, including sadness and depression, delinquency, aggression, sex role difficulties, early initiation of sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, poor social and adaptive functioning and low self- esteem(Ramkissoon, 2005).

Caribbean families are characterized by patterns of mother and grandmother-dominated households, absent fathers, common law unions as opposed to marriage, frequent termination of these unions, and child shifting. Child shifting is where children are sent to live with relatives because the parents have migrated, remarried or initiated a common law union with a new partner. Due to these trends, young boys grow up viewing matriarchal households, absent fathers, and adultery as norms and tend to continue these trends as adults when they themselves have families.

As a result, in the Caribbean there are a many absent fathers. While those Caribbean fathers who are physically present are expected to be the main economical providers for their families, they are often emotionally unavailable and have weak social ties to their children. Researchers in Jamaica have investigated two aspects of the father-child relationship: physical absence and psychological absence (Samms-Vaughan, 2005). Psychological absence refers to the father's absence in the minds of their children based on emotional inaccessibility, lack of responsibility and indifference to the welfare of their children. In the final analysis, psychological presence of the father is more important to the emotional well-being of the child than is physical presence. Physical presence necessarily promotes psychological presence, but physical presence and psychological absence can lead to serious psychological damage.

Parenting stress negatively affects all aspects of children's lives, including cognitive development, school performance, behavior problems and behavior strengths (Samms-Vaughan, 2005). Ricketts and Anderson (cited in Samms-Vaughan, 2005) found that highly stressed Jamaican parents do not spend as much time as other parents interacting with their children and much of their interaction is inappropriate, with high levels of harsh discipline. They also found that parental stress was reduced by access to parenting information, but that relatively few parents had such access. The implication is that parenting information and support should be made more widely available, to improve parent-child interaction.

3 Stress, neglect, abuse, and violence

The Children’s Helpline, an Aruban call center for young people in distress, receives phone calls from children as young as 8 years old, but the majority of callers are aged 11-16. According to the Children’s Helpline, the most common problems experienced by the island’s youth were related to: relationships (9,5% in 2007 and 10,5 % in 2009), sexuality (6,2 % in 2007 and 8,0 % in 2009), family (6,7 % in 2007 and 7,0 % in 2009),and domestic violence (3,9 % in 2006 and 4,6 % in 2009).

In a study on child abuse and neglect on Aruba, Guda (2008) gives the following breakdown of cases in recent years:

Physical abuse 19.8 %

Sexual abuse 15.9%

Emotional abuse 12 6.6 %

Physical neglect 25.3 %

Neglect of education 12.1 %

Emotional neglect 13.7 %

Other forms of abuse 6.6 %

As elsewhere in the world, domestic violence is a major and rapidly increasing problem in Aruba (Ministerie van Justitie, 2002;Lünneman & Bruinsma, 2005). Despite the fact that every day there are several reported (and many more unreported) cases of maltreatment of women in Aruba, there has never been an inquiry commissioned to investigate the magnitude of this problem. Such an inquiry is necessary for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is the fact that we have no idea of the true extent of the problem because most cases of domestic violence are never made public. Normally people would like to say that they are happy, that they have a good job and a good income; that their children are doing very well at school and that love reigns supreme at home. Nobody likes to give publicity to family problems of any kind. Women who are battered by their husband or partner will usually not talk about the sad events occurring at home. They will only notify the police when they or their children are seriously injured or when there is extensive destruction of property. It is difficult for a woman to lodge a complaint against her husband or partner. The arrest or imprisonment of a father often compounds the traumas and suffering of already battered and distressed mothers and children. Nevertheless sometimes domestic violence requires intervention by the police (Wilson, 1997; Beke& Bottenberg, 2003). In Aruba, on the 26th of March 2011, a jealous husband (aged 34) shot his wife (aged 31) three times in the presence of her father and her child. Later that day he tried to commit suicide (Amigoe, 2011).

That is the reason why legal regulations have made intervention possible in private places like the home, making an exception to the human right of privacy stipulated in article 8 of the International Treaty of Rome on Human Rights as well as in the first chapter of the Aruban constitution, where it is stipulated that government has the obligation to protect its citizens. Domestic violence is a crime and therefore punishable. Recently the parliament in the Netherlands approved a bill which stipulates that a husband who has battered his wife or has acted violently against his children must leave the home, instead of the wife seeking refuge with her children in a shelter. (Lünnemann, 2003; Lünnemann, Romkens & De Roos, 2009). In Aruba there is now a similar bill of law before parliament that has not yet been approved.

Domestic violence against women occurs wherever society has placed the status of men above the status of women under an ideology which is called patriarchy or machismo. This ideology is manifested in granting men more rights and privileges than women, like being the head of the household, having the right to study, to work, to vote, to be a politician, to become a professional, etc. It is also manifested in forcing women to do all of the work related to raising children, cooking, cleaning, etc. (Jenainati & Groves, 2007).

During the 18th and 19th centuries, some notable women, especially in the United Kingdom, followed by the United States, started to challenge their subordinate social position and demanded equal rights. This was the beginning of the struggle of feminist movements against oppression by men. After many years of struggle and sacrifice, feminism has succeeded in changing some laws, attitudes, and other aspects of patriarchy, but there is much more to be done.

Aruba has taken advantage of some of these gains made by feminists and women today have many more opportunities in education and employment than they did before. An indication of the success of the feminist movement is the fact that, percentage wise, Aruban women are now better prepared academically than Aruban men. An indication of the challenges for the future for the feminist movement is the fact that despite their better levels of education, Aruban women are still paid less for doing the same type of work than men with the same or even lower levels of education and women are still under-represented in the most highly paid and most prestigious occupations. Typically a woman who has become a professional marries and has children, but her male partner does not want to take on his share of domestic responsibilities which would allow her to practice her profession outside the home. We have found in our interviews with battered women that this is one of the main factors causing stress and violence in Aruban households.

Patriarchy and the domestic violence that it inevitably causes have had a devastating impact on women, children, families, and societies in Aruba and the Caribbean. Approximately 70% of the men who abuse their female partners also abuse their children (Wilson, 1997). Children who have experienced domestic violence often experience disruptions to normal developmental patterns that result in emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems. The alarming rise in school dropout rates, especially among boys in the Caribbean, can be traced in part to domestic violence, as can the rise in teenage pregnancies. Children who have been exposed to or have been the victims of domestic violence often grow up to perpetuate the cycle of violence, so that when they form their own families they become batterers themselves. (Wilson, 1997; Lünneman & Bruinsma, 2005) The skyrocketing divorce rates in Aruba and the rest of the Caribbean and the resulting stresses on families are directly related to increasing levels of domestic violence. Much public violence is committed by people who were abused as children, which means that domestic violence has played a key role in the rapidly increasing rates of crime and juvenile delinquency in Aruba and the Caribbean region (Ministerie van Justitie, 2002; Van de Rakt, Nieuwbeerta& de Graaf, 2006).

4 Conclusion: How can we break the cycle of violence?

As we have seen, violent behavior is learned, and unfortunately it is often learned early in life, when the brain is making critical connections. Along with families, early childhood teachers and other caregivers can be crucial in protecting children from violence and supporting their healthy development. Just as they can learn to be violent, children can also learn through a loving relationship to be kind, cooperative, patient and understanding. They can learn constructive ways to solve problems, to deal with disagreements and to handle anger. With this early foundation of knowledge and skill, children are more likely to develop positive relations with other children (and later on with their partners), enjoy academic success, complete school, and lead more fulfilling adult lives.

For many children in Aruba, the media have come to play the educational role that formerly was played by parents and teachers. Unfortunately, much of the media aimed at younger audiences is saturated with conflict, competition, and violence. Children, especially boys, are conditioned to imitate the violent heroes who they see daily on the screen engaged in physical violence and murder, which sanctions and promotes aggressive behavior. It shows children that violence is an acceptable way to handle conflict. It makes it easy for children to ignore the suffering, fear, insecurity and the other horrible consequences of violence, and instills in them an appetite for ever more violence in ever more extreme forms. As parents, teachers and caregivers we need to demonstrate to our children that real life violence hurts. We should avoid buying violent toys and games for children and encourage games that we play together, which are fun and educational. We should protest against all the violent movies, toys and games that are being promoted and sold.

Judges are offering batterers therapy designed to change patterns of aggression and to uncover the origin of their violent behavior and anger. Families in general and victims in particular are being offered restorative justice therapy, which uses a holistic approach to show people how to treat each other and care for each other. These are some of the ways by which we can begin to break the cycle of violence(Morris, 2001)


[1]Common law union: parents live together, but are not legally married (Slideshare, 2009)

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