SINGAPORE - Domestic violence survivor Pushpa Chandra says her biggest mistake during her three years of being abused was keeping her family in the dark about it. The marketing manager, who is in her 30s, adds: "The minute my husband hit me, I should have got my family involved."
She did not do so because she "didn't want them to look down on him", says the mother of one, who is now living with her mother.
For three years, she endured about 50 beatings from her ex-husband even after she obtained a personal protection order. She finally pressed charges against her ex-spouse, whose wealthy family runs a food business, after he slashed her with a knife, and he was jailed.
Another domestic abuse survivor, Ms Patsy Tan, put up with abuse from her lawyer ex-spouse for close to a decade before calling it quits.
"Don't ever think the abuser will change for the better," says the mother of two, who is a financier in her 40s.
Both Ms Chandra and Ms Tan (not their real names) say they identify with celebrity chef Nigella Lawson whose husband Charles Saatchi was caught on camera putting his fingers around her neck and pinching her nose outside a London restaurant recently.
The two women's ex-husbands had slapped, punched, kicked, choked and thrown objects at them.
The men also called them "whore" and "slut", dictated how they dressed (no low-cut tops or short skirts) and abused them verbally if they felt the women did not obey.
Ms Chandra recalls: "He used to say to me, 'I am your husband. I have the right to love you and I have the right to beat you. If you make mistakes, I beat you.'"
Reasons for abuse included perceived slights from their wives' parents or their wives' perceived unfaithfulness - or for no reason at all.
Ms Tan was regularly awoken in the dead of night and pummelled. She says: "Not a word, he just beat me up." She reckons it was his way of feeling "superior".
Like Lawson, the two women SundayLife! interviewed are corporate high-fliers, overseeing regional markets, with a team of employees under them.
Mr Benny Bong, 56, president of the Society Against Family Violence (SAFV), says Lawson's case challenges the "notion that victims of domestic violence are usually low-educated and disempowered individuals".
He points to the 2010 International Violence Against Women Survey, which found that nearly a third of women who said they were victims of physical and sexual violence had university or post-graduate degrees.
The SAFV and the National University of Singapore's Law Faculty carried out the survey.
Ms Seah Kheng Yeow, head of family development and community relations for Pave, the agency that works with victims of family violence, says out of 300 new cases it sees in a year, one-third are women with tertiary education.
Pave assesses the risk, weighs options and works out a safety plan for those seeking help.
Mr Lee Terk Yang, 38, director in Characterist law firm who has handled about 40 personal protection orderrelated cases in the last four years, says two-thirds are well-educated professionals.
He estimates there are "simply more corporate women these days than, say, 10 years ago".
Given that both Ms Tan and Ms Chandra can more than afford their own keep, why did they hang on?
There are myriad reasons, including inertia, resignation and feeling a need to forgive, experts say. Mr Bong notes: "Although they hate the violence, many victims still love their spouse."
For Ms Chandra, it was her need for a father figure to her child. She says: "My father died when I was a teenager. I wanted my son to have a daddy. So, I stayed and stayed."
Ms Tan gives a similar reason: "I wanted to have a complete family."
She also thought that things would change for the better if she first changed herself.
"I thought I was spoilt, sheltered or wilful. I thought if I changed in this way or that, things would become better," says Ms Tan, whose family is well-off.
But abusive spouses may not stop their behaviour.
Says Pave's Ms Seah: "There is a continuum of violence. Usually, it starts with the men putting their wives down, then calling them names. "They then get physical and use weapons - a bamboo pole, chair or parang."
In fact, the perpetrator shifts the blame over time.
Says Ms Seah: "In the initial period, the man may feel remorseful. But when the pattern of abuse continues, and the 'honeymoon' phase stops, the man gradually minimises or denies his fault, or blames the wife for his actions."
For example, he may say: "You don't know how to cook my curry till now. You make me angry, so I have to beat you."
In the case of Saatchi, a British tycoon and art collector, he put the onus of his decision to divorce Lawson on her shoulders.
He had told British media: "I am disappointed that she was advised to make no public comment to explain that I abhor violence of any kind against women and have never abused her physically in any way."
Counsellors say the last straw is when weapons are used or when the children are at risk. Ms Tan recalls: "It was like treading on egg shells. He instilled so much fear in me. I didn't know if I was going to live the next day."
After one beating, she was "in a daze", when her older child, then around five years old, asked her: "Mummy, are you thinking of that day? I'm also thinking about it. Do you want to divorce daddy?"
Ms Tan recalls asking her child: "If we divorce, that means a broken family for you. Do you want me to stay for you? If you do, I will."
Her child, she says, replied: "No, mummy. Don't stay. Because every time after he says sorry, and cries and begs, he beats you up again."
That gave her the "strength" the next day to engage a lawyer, go to the Family Court to get a personal protection order, and get the maid to pack up her things and the two children's belongings.
"I drove home to pick up the kids and moved out," says Ms Tan, who rented an apartment.
Her children were not abused by their father. Most abusers do not harm their children, but kids who are caught in the crossfire may act up.
Says Ms Seah: "The introverts, for example, withdraw, don't pay attention in class or self-mutilate because having physical pain is better than the pain they feel inside. The extroverts may become defiant or a bully because they have seen daddy beat mummy and mummy kept quiet."
The women SundayLife! interviewed say they feel safer on their own even though the psychological scars remain. For example, they fear starting new relationships.
But they want to move on. Ms Chandra says: "I can't break down - my son has no dad now, he can't lose his mum as well."
Ms Tan says: "I don't want my children to grow up thinking that it's normal for a man to beat his wife or that the fist is a solution. I don't want them to hate me for staying on in the marriage because I was too weak to make a change."
WHERE TO GET HELP
Rectifying a domestic abuse situation does not always mean ending the relationship. But you do need to seek help.
Apply for a Personal Protection Order
Apply for a personal protection order at the Family Court or via video link at counselling centres Pave, Trans Safe Centre and Care Corner Project StART. If you have made a police report or have medical documents, submit these to make your case stronger.
Get witnesses, if you can, especially for mental or verbal abuse which leaves no scars.
Go for counselling
If you are not prepared to take legal steps, at least call a helpline or see a counsellor.
Seek help at a shelter if you need to.
Places of help
Pave, tel: 6555-0390, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Trans Safe Centre, tel: 6449-9088, e-mail: email@example.com
Care Corner Project StART, tel: 6476-1482, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware): Helpline: 1800-774-5935
Singapore Anglican Community Services
Family Care Centre, hotline: 1800-346-4939
Star Shelter (under the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations), tel: 6837-0611
Casa Raudha Women Home, fax: 6898-1376, e-mail: email@example.com
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