A bullying attitude or culture can imprint itself on a person in their formative years, potentially leading to a lifetime of abuse in every walk of life. In school, you have the typical ‘toy scenario’ where an eighteen month baby snatches a toy from the hands of another child. This cannot be construed as direct bullying, but without any attempt to curb this behaviour, if allowed to spiral out of control, the child may develop characteristics of self-entitlement, egoism and other negative traits. This could also be mirrored in later life at the workplace, with a partner, with children and in many other scenarios.
It can, indeed, become the most serious of cases when an individual, who through persistent abuse throughout their life and subjection to traumatic events, may decide that the easiest option is to end their own life. Gibraltar, some argue, is not a utopia where these things ‘just don’t happen’ because there is always someone there to take care of you.
Felix Alvarez has led the Equality Rights Group, in one form or another, for over a decade and a half in a struggle to support those who have suffered the most at the hands of bullying and inequality. Initially forming the Gibraltar Gay Rights group in 2000, it soon became clear that intolerance touched many sectors on the Rock who felt abandoned by the lack of legislation backing their rights. Other groups soon joined the cause and the ERG was born to tackle these problems together as a collective and unfaltering force, “Bullying comes at you on different levels and in multiple directions. It is enshrined in legislation in the way that institutions behave towards people. We normally think about person to person bullying, but bullying arises from work, social or religious background and racism. All these things require different responses. Another aspect of bullying is when we have gender violence. It is usually categorised differently but it is still a situation where someone is victimised and can accept the role of victim.”
The ERG aims to provide support and advice to people who have fallen into a depressive hole where they keep their feelings penned up. Part of this process is to protest, change laws, challenge the politicians’ views and not accept inequality passively, “We have not had a serious case for a number of years now which is a good sign. In the past, we had several cases. There was a young man who was celebrating New Year’s Eve in one of the bars at Casemates and was very severely beaten up purely for being openly gay. He was with his partner and they shared a little kiss, which was enough for them to be attacked when they left the bar. He was chased and then beaten up to the point that he was confined to a wheelchair for a period, luckily, it was not permanent.” The young man suffered such severe psychological trauma that he felt that he had no other option than to try and throw himself from the rooftops. Although Felix heard of this case sometime after the incident, it was reported to the police and the youngster was able to move on, “There are times when a person is afraid to report an incident such as this because they are ashamed. This is a very common reaction from people who suffer physical and psychological trauma. After approaching us and reporting the case, he was able to move on, but it should not have reached that level in the first place. There is nothing wrong in showing who you are, but when it comes to sexual minorities those standards don’t seem to be applied. People consider it ‘flaunting’ or ‘strident’ to say that a member of the same sex is your partner and sometimes psychological violence can be harder to get over than physical violence.”
Francis Buttigieg is another stalwart fighter against intolerance and bullying in Gibraltar, having suffered himself indignity at the workplace for many years. He fronts the Dignity at Work Now pressure group that highlighted the extent of bullying at the workplace on the Rock and pushed the Gibraltar Government into passing the ‘Right to dignity at work’ act in 2012. At the time, Francis said that over 5,000 people on the Rock were being subjected to bullying, sending shockwaves through the community on the hidden truths of discrimination and persecution at the workplace, “There is a bit of a myth in Gibraltar that everyone helps one another out. It is easy to pull a fiver out of your pocket and place it in a tin, but what we really need is the human touch such as when you look at someone in the eyes and show tenderness. There is a bit of a contradiction on how we see ourselves in this community. In the main, we are generous in Gibraltar. There are a lot of good people, but in this line of work, we are dealing with the negatives of people’s behaviours and we see individuals in a different light. At times, we are not as friendly and welcoming as we think we are.”
Hitting rock bottom in a manner that makes you consider whether life is worth living is the worst case scenario. Could you imagine just how this person perceived work that they considered taking their own life as an easier option? It is likely that there are other contributing factors in a situation like this, but in a place where you spend a large portion of your time, it can have a heavy influence on how you see your everyday life as a whole, “It happened in Gibraltar right under our noses. It made me feel horrible and guilty that I had failed someone to the point that they took their life. I questioned myself on what I could have done differently to help this person and I ended up seeking psychological help to deal with these emotions. It took me a while to get back on my feet. I am not insinuating that this person’s death was directly linked to bullying, but bullying and suicide are related.”
In another case, there was a single mother with two kids and a mortgage to pay off and due to a breech between a friendship and professional relationship, things began to turn sour. The managers started leaning on this individual to work harder and fulfil unrealistic deadlines. It came a time that it was unsustainable, so when she protested at being overworked, it all went pear shaped, “The bosses decided to give threats that unfinished work would be unacceptable, she then contacted us and we saw that the only option available for her was to quit. Some battles are not worth fighting for and she decided that it was a better option to leave than to put herself through the turmoil of going to court. It really makes you question the HR process because with some key adjustments, it could have been resolved quite easily. When someone has it for you, it is difficult for the individual to see a way forward. That’s when we come in and offer a mediating approach to defuse the situation.”
The Gibraltar Women’s Association celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has come a long way since its formation as the ‘Gibraltar Housewives Association’ in 1966. In a battle to maintain women’s rights in Gibraltar, the association has been at the forefront of gender inequality issues and has challenged the status quo on numerous occasions. Committee member Anne-Marie Struggles believes that there are still some non-British citizens of Moroccan descent living in Gibraltar who are not protected from domestic violence. These people are stuck with their partner and are unable to cross the border to Spain because of visa restrictions and cannot return to Morocco because of the cultural stigma against divorce. They have nothing else, “We have a mentality of ‘I’m alright Jack’ where if it doesn’t happen to me or my family, then why should I care. Bullying as a whole makes you insecure, think less of yourself and can generate suicidal thoughts. It is a great struggle and it could lead to the most serious of consequences. These things happen in Gibraltar and turning a blind eye to it is at our own peril.”
A woman heavily involved in tackling the anti-bullying side of the GWA, who wished to remain anonymous, was shocked when she heard that a 45-year-old man had beaten a 19-year-old British girl of Moroccan descent in plain sight after an argument with another girl her age. “Nothing has been done about this. It was reported to the police but the case was closed because they claimed that there was not enough evidence. The video cameras in Casemates would have recorded this, so that would have been sufficient evidence, but it was not taken further. The man turned out to be the uncle of the other girl and instead of separating them when they were arguing, he beat her. He had no right to touch that girl, and on top of that, this man works in social services and is still there.”
24-year-old woman, who also feared putting her name forward, was born in Gibraltar to a British mother and Moroccan father and has suffered from racist behaviour as from a very young age, “When it suits people, I am of Moroccan descent and when it suits others, I am considered British. I was born in Gibraltar, so I am ‘llanita’. I’ve been bullied throughout my school-life, but I fought back and even took karate lessons to teach the bullies a lesson. But I know of others who would shrink when confronted with such aggression through no fault of their own and this trauma can affect them gravely in future life.”
The aforementioned groups and many others have endless cycles of cases to deal with as they attempt to spread awareness of taboo issues that are often ‘swept under the carpet’. As a small community, it is hard to believe that so many people fall through Gibraltar’s ‘loop holes’ and find themselves within a spiral of self-destruction. Every year, there are new campaigns to spread awareness and tackle the problem at an early age by holding talks and seminars in local schools, as well as numerous flag days on Main Street. With these measures in place, there is hope that Gibraltar’s community will show more empathy and can truly say that it is a culturally diverse ‘utopia’ where tolerance and bullying is not even considered an issue.