Every Valentine’s Day, people celebrate it by sharing messages such as "those who are not jealous are not in love," "you've got to be cruel to be kind" or even mythical phrases of romantic love such as "without you, I'm dying." The truth is that these kinds of messages hide harmful attitudes within a couple, especially if a form of violence is being exercised to any extend —whether it’s physical, emotional or psychological.
But, above all, the unusual thing about all this is that we have ended up normalizing these behaviors.
Relationship-based violence is a worrying issue not only in Latin America, but throughout the world: 1 in 3 women have experienced some type of violence while in a relationship, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And within the region, the numbers are also alarming. In Mexico, the National Autonomous University indicated that 39% of Mexican girls between 15 and 24 years old have suffered this type of aggression; in Colombia, 136 new cases of partner violence are reported every day; and in Peru, 63% of women said they were victims of violence inside a relationship in 2018, according to the government’s Demographic and Family Health Survey.
A report from the IDB and Promundo in Brazil and Honduras provides new clues about the ways in which young people, between 15 and 24 years old, experience violence in their relationships. The study found that while many young people tend to recognize what constitutes physical violence, few identify other forms of violence such as non-consensual sex, emotional extortion, and start normalizing controlling behaviors from their partners —often interpreted as a way of showing affection. For example, many of the teenagers consulted consider normal for their partner to supervise how they dress and determine who they can communicate over the phone or social networks.
"He started by taking my cell phone away from me. Then he bought me a new SIM card so that I would not talk to my friends," says a 17-year-old girl in an anonymous report from the Andalusian Women's Institute, in Spain. "He wanted to be the only one who I chatted on WhatsApp with. At school, I had to send him pictures every five minutes so he could see I was in class."
According to the study, few teenagers understand the negative impact that controlling behaviors have on their health and well-being. These types of actions are usually accompanied by other forms of violence, such as psychological or verbal violence, and the World Health Organization (WHO) points them out as risk factors to other forms of partner violence, like physical and sexual violence. According to this organization, the most common types of controlling behaviors that young people experience are isolation them from their friends, restricting contact with their family, insisting on knowing where they are at all times, getting angry when talking to someone of the opposite sex, and regularly suspecting infidelity.
"He started by taking my cell phone away from me. Then he bought me a new SIM card so that I would not talk to my friends," says a 17-year-old girl
Many young people in Latin America and the Caribbean do not have spaces where they can learn and reflect critically on their sexual and reproductive rights, gender equality or develop interpersonal communication skills. This would help them to recognize their own preferences and desires, and to communicate these assertively and without behaving violently towards their partners. Also, a comprehensive sexual education would help them navigate their first relationships in a consensual, safe and non-coercive way.
The WHO estimates that this type of program —those that help develop skills in young people to better navigate their relationships— can reduce partner violence by up to 29%. Above all, they are effective when programs are initiated at an early stage, starting at age 10.
Through these initiatives, teenagers can inhabit spaces to reflect on what a healthy relationship is, how to establish equal power dynamics, how to communicate effectively and how to solve their conflicts without aggression. As part of these programs, youngsters are taught to recognize when a relationship is controlling or violent, and how to act and whom to turn to for help if this occurs.
Photo Gallery: the Becoming a Woman program in Trinidad and Tobago
From the IDB we have promoted several of these initiatives in countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. In Guatemala, we support the Abriendo Oportunidades program that teaches young Mayans how to effectively navigate their transition to adolescence. In El Salvador we replicated the H and M program, a Brazilian community education project that teaches young people how to prevent violence against women and have better sexual health. In Trinidad and Tobago, we support the Becoming a Woman project which offers safe spaces for girls and young women at risk, so that they learn about their sexuality, and develop greater confidence and self-esteem.
For Marcela, a 24-year-old Brazilian woman who is working to redefine the conceptions of relationships she observes in her partner, family and community, women should not be submissive or limited by their relationship.
"I believe that a woman should be free to behave as she decides, to define who she wants to be and not pretend to be someone else," says Marcela. "When a boyfriend forbids him to laugh with others, be friends with someone or talk to a friend, I think that is a form of psychological violence."
If you have been a victim of partner violence or you know someone who has been, go to the support institutions that exist in your country such as ministries for Women, local police stations and/or non-governmental organizations. You can also download the report here.