Play on violence close to heart of HK families

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am

Violence is something Danielle Spencer grew up with. But the native of Toxteth, Liverpool, who teaches drama and confidence-building techniques in Hong Kong, hopes that she and her two cousins will be the first in her family to break a vicious circle that has gone on for generations.

'My grandfather used to treat my grandmother badly, and she just took it,' Ms Spencer says. 'She is from a generation of women who didn't feel there was any alternative. Then there was my aunt, who's blind. Her husband was violent towards her. Once, he even hung her by her ankles over a bridge. She spent years terrified, but being blind, she didn't think she could lead an independent life.'

Ms Spencer is directing this year's The Vagina Monologues, in which women from many backgrounds and cultures describe how they feel about themselves, their experiences - their vaginas. It's fun, it's bawdy, and it's also very moving.

The Vagina Monologues was created by playwright and feminist Eve Ensler. In 1998, Ensler launched V-Day, which has raised more than US$50 million for organisations involved in anti-violence work, a pertinent subject in Hong Kong where abuse of women is common.

Celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Salma Hayek and Jessica Alba will be involved in Monologues 10th anniversary celebrations next month.

Every year between Valentine's Day on February 14 and International Women's Day on March 8, Ensler allows groups worldwide to stage the play to raise money for charity.

Ms Spencer aims to raise funds for medicine, accommodation and food for women asylum-seekers who go to the Chung King Mansions Service Centre, run by Christian Action in Tsim Sha Tsui. She and friends have also organised a series of public fun events, including a pub crawl, to raise funds.

While asylum seekers often receive food handouts, they usually have no cash to buy daily necessities.

'It's humiliating for some of these women,' says Sarah Cornish, the centre's manager. 'They come here and they have to ask for underwear.'

Some have suffered rape and other forms of sexual abuse before escaping the Congo or Somalia or other war-torn areas of Africa. Ms Spencer, a volunteer teacher with the centre, runs empowerment classes on Monday afternoons. The women discuss poetry and literature from their home countries and learn to trust one another. Women make up only 200 of the 2,000 asylum seekers in Hong Kong, but Ms Cornish designates the women's day on a Monday to ensure that the women have privacy and time to be with one another.

While there are cases of wartime abuse, there's also violence that occurs in Hong Kong - the helpless husband who is angry at his own situation and takes that fury out on his wife.

In Hong Kong, violence against women is on the rise. While organisations helping victims agree that greater awareness has led to more reportings, they also say incidents have increased in recent years.

Margaret Wong Fung-yee is the executive director of Harmony House, which shelters women and provides counselling for both victims and perpetrators of violence. She says that 10 years ago, the number of battered spouse cases was 1,009, according to figures from the Central Registry under the Social Welfare Department. In 2006, that number had risen fourfold to 4,424. Eighty-four per cent of victims are women. 'For 2007, we have figures for January to September and they already stand at 4,795,' Ms Wong says.

With the opening of the border and an increase in cross-border marriages, more abuse cases have surfaced among this group, she says. Often, mainland wives come from rural areas and it takes them a long time to seek help, fearful of the shame involved.

'The triggers to domestic violence are sometimes differences of opinion on how to raise the children, or lack of finances,' Ms Wong says. 'These are environmental triggers but not root causes.'

She says a key problem with criminal legislation on domestic abuse in Hong Kong is that the victim has to bring the charges. The police often require a witness.

She feels this is unrealistic. Often women are too afraid of their husbands or other male relatives to bring charges. They may also blame themselves for the violence. But she says police treatment had improved in that more interviews are conducted with both male and female officers and away from the perpetrator.

There's a long way to go, however. Chinese culture means domestic abuse is very much a taboo topic. 'In 1985, we set up our first shelter,' Ms Wong says. 'Tradition is a tradition, culture is a culture. It takes a long time to change that.'

Treatment programmes for violent men also tend to be privately funded, she says, and the government has yet to recognise their usefulness.

Ng Kim-shan, head of the Hong Kong Association for the Survivors of Women Abuse, says the Domestic Violence Ordinance is likely to be reformed this year to widen its remit.

'It was set up in 1986, and it's not enough to protect victims nowadays,' she says, adding that it defines family as a couple with children and is limited to married relationships.

There's no scope for abused elderly folk or those people who just live together.

Even if women have had bad experiences, says The Vagina Monologues performer Gloria Siu, the play teaches them to review their self-image.

The play will be in English and Cantonese, and Ms Spencer, 24, is pleased with the number of local players willing to portray a subject that is largely taboo.

For nine years Ms Spencer's mother dealt with the drunken rages of a violent boyfriend, which Ms Spencer witnessed.

But what stands out for her and has had a profound effect on her own life and sense of strength as a woman, was that her mother summoned up the courage to take the abusive boyfriend to court. 'Despite the evidence which her lawyer had of photos of his violence, with bruises, all he got from the judge was 30 days' community service,' she says.

But it broke the cycle and showed the women of her family that they did not have to suffer in silence. Her blind aunt has also divorced her uncle and realised that she can lead a fruitful and independent life.

When she was last in Liverpool visiting her family, Ms Spencer spotted her mother's former boyfriend across the street. 'He's just a street drunk,' she says. 'He couldn't even raise his eyes to me.'

For more information on V-Day events during March and the Vagina Monologues performances, see