Uncomfortable home truths for students

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2007, 12:00am

Coming from a diverse range of subjects, 75 undergraduates from the University of Hong Kong have made a decision to step out of their comfort zones and study domestic violence - the first students from non-social and health faculties to be introduced to HKU's campus-wide study of the subject.

They will confront some of the most traumatic, yet common, aspects of family violence; child abuse, spouse battering and psychological torture.

And they are already finding that the cases they come across are much more shocking than the newspaper headlines on family tragedies.

The Security Bureau reported 4,967 cases of family violence from January to August this year, almost double the number in the same period last year.

The attempt to raise awareness among university students as opposed to society as a whole may seem like a strange move.

Nevertheless, Edward Chan Ko-ling, from HKU's department of social work and social administration, thinks otherwise.

'We are dealing directly with a specific group who tend to resort to violence in relationship problems a lot more often than those in spousal relationships, although the degree of severity might not be as serious,' he said.

Dr Chan said the department's studies had shown that 10 per cent of pregnant women and couples in spousal relationships in Hong Kong experienced family violence.

But another poll targeting students at three universities found that about 46 per cent of dating couples were victims of violence within their relationships.

'One would not have guessed violent behaviour is so common among young people in romantic relationships,' Dr Chan said.

Common acts of violence among dating university students included pushing, slapping, kicking, rape and even burning, Dr Chan said.

Joint co-ordinator for family violence education, Agnes Tiwari Fung-yee, who is also assistant dean of HKU's medical faculty, said another reason for launching campus-wide family violence education was that domestic violence knew no educational boundaries.

Many female students thought it was acceptable to pinch their boyfriends or that pushing was OK among fighting couples, Dr Tiwari said, but it was not.

'It is very important for us to intervene before it's too late to correct misconceptions in young people's minds.'

Dr Tiwari said government publicity campaigns alone were not enough to raise pawareness of the issue of violence in the family, especially where it involved the elderly, or where many vulnerable people suffered in silence.

Students of accounting, bio-chemistry, the arts and other disciplines gather once a week to study domestic violence issues in the credit-bearing course.

The students' diverse academic backgrounds reflected the fact that 'family violence is a recognised social problem but also that students know very little about it', Dr Tiwari said.

Dr Chan added that studying family violence was interesting for students of the rational sciences because it enabled them to discuss controversial issues that did not have a cut-and-dried right or wrong answer.

Brian Wong Yau-tin, a 20-year-old sports science student, enrolled in the family violence prevention course this semester. 'It's not an extremely popular subject, so I thought I wouldn't have to fight hard for a place,' he said. 'Apart from the practical factor, I wanted to understand the cause of family violence because I was once a victim. Before learning about real cases of family violence from the classes I had not imagined it could get so bad. I used to think my situation was really serious, but it was nothing comparing to other victims' cases,' he said.

Mr Wong said that when he was a child, he and his brother were often beaten up for talking back. Haunted by this past, he was driven to try to understand the problem.

'Family violence should not be neglected. We should all pay more attention to the formation of the problem. It is in fact highly preventable with communication and tolerance among family members.

'I will recommend this course to my friends who have also experienced family violence,' he said.

Family violence prevention is an elective subject taken by 75 students this semester, out of about 200 who applied.

The number of applicants came as a 'pleasant surprise' as the two scholars, were not confident the subject would be well received.

The course's lecturers are multidisciplinary academic staff with backgrounds in sociology, public health and law.

'We are trying a rather adventurous, or experimental, approach to teaching family violence so students can think of the issue from a multidimensional perspective,' Dr Chan said.

Apart from lectures, students are required to attend three tutorials involving a problem-based learning approach where they are asked to identify problems and work out a solution among themselves.

Their tutorials are aided by year-two medical or nursing students with experience in learning from a problem-based approach.

Students are presented with family violence case models or other teaching aids, such as the Julia Roberts movie Sleeping with the Enemy.

'It helps them to understand some of the nature of manipulative relationships and subtle psychological abuse,' Dr Tiwari said.

The 1991 movie features a seemingly happily married couple. However, the lead female character is trapped in an abusive relationship, which pushes her to escape. Her husband pursues her and she eventually kills him.

Discussion based on a case study such as this movie led to controversial debates from legal and health perspectives, Dr Tiwari said.

Dr Chan said: 'If our approach is proven to be successful, we are hoping to share our experience and introduce family violence prevention as a cross-disciplinary course to other universities and even schools.

'This is the right time to do it with the change of the university system from three to four years. It gives more scope to universities to organise courses with non-technical knowledge such as family violence prevention.'

It is hoped the number of students taking the course can be expanded to about 300 next year.

Dr Tiwari said the 'ultimate message' was that family violence was preventable.

She said the effectiveness of today's efforts might take a long time to realise, but if the students remembered that one in 10 people in relationships experienced family violence, it would be a powerful start.

Dr Chan added: 'If we can at least stop the worst tragedies from happening and urge victims to step out to seek help, we are already successful.'