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What if we knew why abuse happens?

One of the greatest myths of gender-based violence is that it happens between individuals. Unfortunately many, if not most, interventions aimed at the elimination of woman and child abuse are directed at either the support or the correction of the individual.

It is estimated that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa. In Gauteng, an estimated 50 percent of women are exposed to domestic violence in their lifetimes. Only one in 13 survivors of rape will report the incident to the police.

Interpersonal violence is one of the biggest threats to the overall health of the South African population; in fact, it is second only to HIV/Aids. Children who are abused are at greater risk of entering into abusive relationships later in life.

You will hear these statistics many times over the course of the annual #16DaysofActivism for No Violence Against Women and Children Campaign, and one of your main challenges will be not to become numb when you read them.

The government’s chosen theme for this year’s campaign is “Count me in: together moving a non-violent South Africa forward”. It is a noble theme, but one that is clearly aimed at moving our talk about gender-based violence away from the victim-blaming discourse that dominates at so many levels. The unpacking of the theme on the government’s website points to a few problematic assumptions that are hampering activism against woman and child abuse. These assumptions are also at work in many of the interventions that are launched against gender-based violence in South Africa.

The first problem lies in the government’s request for South Africans to wear a white ribbon during the 16-day campaign, to symbolise “the commitment of the wearer to never commit or condone violence against women and children”.

While this is indeed an honourable aim, and one the whole world should adopt, it’s unattainable when we do not give a thought to what it would mean to commit or condone violence against women or children. As a society, we have learnt to keep our mouths shut when we see a woman being harassed on the street, and more often than not, we refuse to intervene when we hear the sounds of domestic abuse down the road.

Our reasons range from safety concerns to notions of privacy and family sanctity. Our lack of action is condoning the perpetration of violence and wearing a white ribbon won’t make that better.

The case of the so-called Springs monster, arrested more than a year ago for allegedly abusing, torturing and holding his family captive for years, came before court again last week. While the man is still under observation at a psychiatric facility, his wife, who he is also accused of raping, was arrested on charges of child abuse, attempted murder, assault and defeating the ends of justice.

One has to wonder at the intensity of such violence and the extent to which its products can be kept secret from a whole neighbourhood for so many years. How many people suspected something was wrong but did nothing to intervene as it was not their place to do so?

What about perpetrating violence? Surely the wearer of a white ribbon can state fairly accurately that they would never abuse a woman or child? But what if that abuse comes in the form of manipulation, emotional extortion or financial leeching? What if the abuse comes in the form of pressuring a woman to have sex because it is her “duty” as a wife? As a former colleague explained: “As a man, I have to accept that I might have raped my wife at some point, without meaning to and without knowing. And because I have accepted that, I have to move forward in a way that is conscious of her needs and wants.”

The government is also calling for victims of abuse to “break the silence”, and for many victims, speaking out is a step towards empowerment and healing.

Most recently, Josina Machel, daughter of Graça Machel, took the brave step and told the world of her own domestic violence nightmare. In theory, this is a great idea: Perpetrators will think twice about abuse when they know their victims will not remain silent. The notion, however, falls flat when we consider the number of obstacles women have to overcome to “break the silence”.

Women often do not have the resources to find their way to the authorities to report incidents of domestic violence. When they do, they are often met with victim-blaming attitudes by those mandated to support them. In some cases they are even encouraged to remain silent, as what happens between a man and his wife is regarded as private.

Incidents such as the brutal rape and murder of 4-year-old Jasmin-Lee Pretorius lead us to consider ways in which it could have been prevented. The girl’s uncle pleaded guilty to the crime and has been sentenced to two life sentences, but what if there was a way to understand the causal factors driving the man to commit these acts and, through understanding them, finding avenues of prevention.

At this point, we all know that a 16-day campaign is not the answer. But perhaps we can use the time to reflect on the ways in which the tide can be turned. A wide range of local and international research provides us with some guidance in this regard. Public and personal discourse seems to centre on increased convictions of and penalties for perpetrators, but the research suggests a different approach, one that takes into account the multiple levels of our existence.

Our interventions must be multi-levelled and complex, targeting the problem at various levels of society. Our interventions are often one-dimensional, focusing mostly on victim rights and, sometimes, perpetrator accountability.

Very few interventions focus on other levels of society, such as the role families play in the perpetuation of harmful practices and stereotypes; the victim-blaming messages often communicated directly or indirectly by churches, schools and other community organisations; the role the media plays in the type of reporting done on gender-based violence; and the role of laws and policies in hindering or helping victims get access to justice.

Even fewer interventions focus on multiple levels at once.

When thinking about multi-level interventions, we need to be conscious of accepted masculinities - who do we think of as “real men”, and what power do those type of men wield in society?

The fact that most perpetrators are men needs to be acknowledged and examined, and interventions informed by this understanding need to be developed.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that men are also vulnerable and can become victims of interpersonal violence - a complicating factor that has the potential to undermine any intervention we design.

Similarly, we need to think about our understanding of femininity - what is expected of women in society, and who is driving these expectations?

These issues need to be critically evaluated by adults, who need to model this reflexive way of inhabiting gender to their own children and the children in their communities.

Research has long shown that beliefs around the dominance of masculinity place women and children - and men who do not adhere to standards of dominance - at increased risk for abuse.

Women and children who are held in a system of unexamined male privilege are silenced in often insidious and sometimes violent ways. For them, there is no way of breaking the silence. Men who buy in to the notion of dominant masculinity are likely to exert their power through violent means, contributing to what Pumla Gqola calls the “female fear factory”, which is the constant manufacturing of female fear as a way of further silencing women and keeping them in submissive roles. The fear factory can only be undermined when violence in “private” settings is publicly contested.

Factors that strengthen the role of dominant masculinity include substance abuse, which serves to repress the moral reasoning abilities of potential perpetrators and adds an additional layer of vulnerability for victims; gun control laws that legitimise certain types of violence; and gun ownership that adds another layer of vulnerability to violence.

It is important to note that men who have killed their partners, most likely shot them. In areas where traditional masculinity is threatened, such as low-income neighbourhoods with high levels of specifically male unemployment, women and children are at particular risk for abuse, with poverty being a particularly salient predictor of gender-based violence in the research.

Correlations have also been found between men’s exposure to human rights violations and racial discrimination, and their likelihood to commit intimate partner violence, further strengthening the threatened masculinity hypothesis. Dominant masculinity exists across the class and race divide, and when it is threatened at any level, men are likely to strike out at their partners and children, whether through physical or verbal abuse or the withholding of resources.

For interventions against gender-based violence to be successful, these factors need to be considered.

Simply increasing perpetrator convictions and improving the provision of health and counselling services to victims, while necessary, will not stymie the tide.

Violence is embedded in our social institutions - in schools and churches, in families and children’s homes, in our government’s laws and policies. It is encoded in the roles we are encouraged to play in all the social spheres of our daily interactions, like Kopano Ratele explained so eloquently: “Our history is a violent one. Violence is a characteristic, perhaps the main characteristic of our institutions as we have them. Our personal lives are written, shall I say it, in blood. Our identities as women and men were stitched together in violent times, realised against brutal conditions.

“It may only be when we admit these things, that we are talking about men who are not mad, but rather if anything was mad it was our own society; that these men are in fact the embodiment of what some would call the shadow of that society, that we may be enabled as a society in the throes of rebirthing itself.”

Our interventions cannot stop at an interpersonal level. We have to find ways to actively challenge the violence inherent to the gender roles we fulfil, on all levels of our lives.

The construction of dangerous masculinities and their inverse vulnerable femininities needs to be undone through school curricula, religious discourse, media representation and daily interactions with these and other institutions.

We need to stop and ask ourselves how the ways in which we relate to the world either contribute to or challenge the upholding of harmful and violent gender roles.

We need to lobby the government to not only put in place more effective systems for the incarceration of perpetrators and the support of victims, but to also undo the gender inequalities still present in its laws and policies. Most of all, we need to call out these atrocities as they happen.

We need to respond to the screams of the neighbour down the street, even when it happens weekend after weekend. We need to confront the young men wolf-whistling and grabbing at the bodies of young women on the streets of the CBD. We need to point out the inconsistencies in the social media updates of our friends and family members.

We need to object to women’s relegation to non-influential roles in businesses, schools, religious institutions and community organisations.

In a way, the government-sanctioned theme for the 16-days campaign hits the nail on the head: In order to stop the scourge of gender-based violence, we need to break the silence. But this should never be the responsibility of the victims alone. All of us need to speak up, speak about and speak to the violence.

* Ella Kotze is a psychologist and Pepfar Fellow at Lawyers Against Abuse. She writes in her personal capacity.
Original article from The Star - 25 November 2015

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What if we knew why abuse happens?

Dec 17, 2015

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