The evidence that violence begets violence is all too present within families in Trinidad and Tobago.
Boys that are witnesses to and victims of domestic violence often themselves react in the only way they are taught: by lashing out.
For Tobagonian Onika Mars, a mother of two boys and a survivor of abuse, the cycle has to stop.
Mars took on the task to start that conversation in March 2017, when she founded the Women of Substance (WOS), a non-governmental organisation which acts as a support group for victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse.
"We also host a boys symposium at secondary schools in Tobago where we have men speaking to the boys as we try to change their mindset from an early age as it relates to anger management, healthy relationships etc,” she told WMN.
“What we have noticed thus far is that most of these young men are angry since they have been exposed to violence in their homes – mommy and daddy fighting and quarrelling – and since domestic violence is learnt behaviour, they act out in school and they respond to situations violently because that is what they know.
Mars was adamant, “If we help our young boys now, then we will have less abusers in the future."
Even prior to founding WOS, Mars started her own movement through sessions which allowed those directly and indirectly affected by domestic violence, to just sit and chat.
That initiative was soon coined just that, "Sit and Chat," and has been hosted twice in Trinidad and 14 times in Tobago. She is usually accompanied by two other directors, fellow survivor, Stacey Ann Duncan and Alice Gordon-James.
In this support session which is now held bi-monthly, victims and survivors of domestic violence meet and share experiences, encourage, counsel, and generally support each other. A trained counsellor attends all meetings, in anticipation of breakdowns.
Mars assured, "Please note for the record sake, our support group is not a male bashing group. We love our men but there are so many broken women walking around our society looking all normal but deep inside they are hurting," she stated.
Now Mars has set her sights on the establishment of a shelter in Tobago and has already secured approvals for the acquisition of a property.
Mars, who is now the owner and CEO of clothing store ELONIS International, remembered having to leave two lucrative jobs, because of the shadow of abuse which followed her.
Composed, she recalled for WMN, "I was forced to move back to Tobago ten years ago with my two sons in order to get away from an abusive relationship that of course did not start off abusive. My relationship started off normal and loving like most relationships do and then I started recognising signs of insecurity and control in my partner. This was a few years into the relationship and because I was deeply in love at that time, I ignored every sign I saw. I always thought no way this is not him, I probably did something to trigger his behaviour and got deeper and deeper into the relationship. The abuse started verbally and emotionally then quickly got to physical."
What followed was years of her being verbally abused and told the "most hurtful and degrading things one could ever think of".
Mars admitted her self-esteem was reduced to nothing. At that time, she said, she was not aware there were different types of abuse, other than physical.
"I thought abuse was only physical so every time we had an episode, he would tell me he is so sorry and I made him do it and he would make up by buying me jewellery, taking me to fancy restaurants and buying me material things. I forgave him and lived in hope that one day he would change and return to the person I met initially. This never happened as things grew worst." She shook her head.
Mars recalled two occasion that stood out for her.
A vacation in Canada soon turned "ugly" when he verbally and physically abused her. When her friend, at who’s home the couple was vacationing, saw her battered face, she asked that he leave.
Mars recalled foolishly trying to lessen the gravity of her injuries and pleading with her friend to allow them to continue their stay. Her friend did not know it then, but she was afraid having to cut their vacation short, would result in more abuse. Her friend complied, after Mars assured her, he would be leaving for Trinidad soon, while she (Mars) travelled on to the US.
In hindsight, Mars said, she can't even recall what incidents triggered some of their "battles," but jealousy, possessiveness and insecurity, she said, were usually at the forefront. She remembered once being knocked out and left with an injury to her lip that required stitches.
"I chose to hide most of the abuse from my parents and some of my other relatives since they were in Tobago and I was intimidated by my abuser who always threatened that he would harm or kill me and I was so embarrassed. There was one close cousin who resided in Trinidad that I confided in to some extent. I remember calling him at 2 and 3 am… to cry and complain and every time I called, I would ask him ‘Cuz you sleeping?’ He would tell me no cuz (yeah right) and I would pour out my heart to him. He always listened and would offer advice (which I never took at that time)," she recalled.
She did share some of the minor incidents with a few of her friends and sought counselling a few times. However, Mars said lack of knowledge and fear that he would follow through on his threats to her, kept her stagnant.
"I was so afraid of my partner because of the threats, that most of my days I prayed and wept asking God to deliver me from my situation… ALIVE," she stressed.
Mars confided in a former boss because her injuries often saw her having to recover at home.
"My former boss and his good friend became my mentors and they prayed me through on several occasions. There were days when I had to stay at home due to the abuse, so eventually I had to confide in (my boss). My abuser even accused me of having a relationship with him, as he did with most males I spoke to."
The abuse followed her to whatever job she started, she said.
"I remember going to work (at another job) with black and blue eyes, swollen face and lying to my (supervisor) and my colleagues when they asked me what was wrong with me. My coping mechanism was prayer. I was not a born-again Christian back then but, I knew how to pray, and I trusted God with everything within me. I started attending church regularly, mind you with him cursing me even as I dressed for church, but I persisted. I eventually gave my life to Christ and got baptised," recalled an animated Mars.
Her abuser's manipulative nature and the lengths he finally went to, she said, is the "straw that broke the camel's back". When he begun stalking and threatening her further, Mars applied for a protection order and returned to Tobago.
Mars was so weary, that she simply applied for a transfer to work in Tobago, attached a copy of the protective order to it and left Trinidad. This was after 13 years of living with her abuser.
"I left Trinidad with two underwear each for my sons and I along with my work uniform and decided to start over my life. I had the support of my parents, my sister, relatives and friends who by then knew what was happening… so that helped me at that time.
“As a survivor of domestic violence and abuse, I was led to start a domestic violence support group for victims and survivors in October 2016. I started the group with 15 women at the first meeting. This move was led by God, I can tell you, cause I really didn't see where exactly it was going." she smiled.
At that first meeting, participants asked her when she would host the second.
During the recently concluded UN-driven, 16 days of activism against violence against women and girls, Mars, along with four other survivors, participated in a three-part video series, "Triumph over Trauma".
The video was an initiative of the TT Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
On December 10, Mars, along with Attorney General Faris Al Rawi; Lynette Seebaran Suite, chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission; Roberta Clarke, head of the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence; and Erla Christopher, deputy Commissioner, Administration sat on a panel which discussed strengthening the legal response to domestic violence.
"My words of advice for victims are to speak up and speak out, know that you are not alone. Abuse thrives in silence so find some trusted person and let them know what you are going through. Do not be afraid or ashamed to seek help. Trust god and get out!” she urged.
Photos courtesy Onika Mars