26 August 2020 | Story Kubeshni Gounder and Carel van Wyk | Photo Unsplash

This article coincides with Women’s Month under the theme Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights for an Equal Future, and hears the raised voices, calls for the empowerment of women in the political, public, and educational spheres, but also highlights the fact that the marginalisation of women severely compromises progress. 
We are continuously faced with the reality of gender-based violence, an insidious element that remains prevalent in many, if not all communities.

Several articles have been written on gender-based violence (GBV), and the questions most often suggest a linear, casual way of thinking, which is one-dimensional in nature. In the Department of Social Work at the University of the Free State, a circular way of thinking is followed that addresses gender-based violence from a developmental perspective. From a developmental approach, we will not criminalise perpetrators, but rather treat them from a restorative justice perspective, giving them a voice. 

Addressing gender-based violence 

In attempting to address the issue of gender-based violence, it is important to get clarity on the perpetrator and the reasons why a person is engaging in such a vicious crime. The motive behind a crime can often not be attributed to a single reason but is rather multifaceted. Factors leading to GBV is ultimately rooted in patriarchy, which contributes to gender power inequality.

Patriarchy, a belief in male superiority, can manifest in men feeling entitled, strict reinforcement of gender roles, and hierarchy, which results in women having low social value and power.

This is where men hold most of the power – financially, politically, and within a community or society. This often stems from the messages that are generated from society and within cultures, including that men are the head of the household, have greater physical strength, are providers and protectors of their family; as such, women are expected to take a more submissive role. 

Poverty has a fervent role to play in GBV, particularly within the SA context, as our economic climate remains unstable, the divide between social classes is disparate and has subsequently increased over the decades with HIV/AIDS, unemployment, and the impact of COVID-19. Substance/alcohol abuse is linked to an increased risk of GBV.
Women are becoming financially independent; this financial confidence means that they can contribute to the family income, which creates uneasiness in households where the man is traditionally the head of the household. Emotions flare up as jealousy, anger, fear, and rage become common because men are feeling undermined, belittled, and threatened by an independent woman. This often leads to IPV (intimate partner violence), which is the most common form of GBV, and includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviour by a former or current intimate partner or spouse; it can occur in same-sex or heterosexual relationships.

Violence is about power and control. Controlling behaviour and coercive control is the way in which an abusive person gains and maintains power and control over another person in order to subject them to physical, psychological, sexual, or financial abuse. 

Challenging social norms and gender stereotypes

To address the core of this issue, one must challenge social norms and gender stereotypes. GBV requires a multidimensional response and commitment from all stakeholders, including government and civil society. On a preventative level, initiatives look at how GBV can be prevented. These ‘response’ efforts need to be complemented by prevention programmes and policy planning. By addressing the underlying causes of GBV as a country, we can work collectively towards addressing it.

Despite the current laws in place, SA has seen a surge in GBV. Legislation exists; however, there are many factors that contribute to what South Africa sees as ineffective in the fight against GBV. There appears to be a lack of education and information available to those who report a crime/offence, as well as the structures to support the reporting. The existing budgetary constraints make it difficult to meet the needs of the victims of GBV.

Understanding the victim in a violent relationship is imperative, as there are many reasons for the individual to remain in these circumstances. Several reasons for this have been highlighted below. However, these are not comprehensive. 
• Low self-esteem- When an abusive partner constantly puts someone down by belittling them or blaming them for the abuse, it can be easy for the victim to believe that the abuse is their fault.
• Fear- A person may be afraid of what might happen if they leave the relationship – fear of further retribution from the perpetrator.
• Believing abuse is normal- Victims of GBV may not know what a healthy, functional relationship is. They tend to normalise the dysfunctional behaviour, and as such, may not recognise that the behaviour is abusive.
• Fear of being exposed/outed- If a person is in an LGBTQIA relationship and has not informed their family or community, their partner may threaten to expose the victim.
• Bringing embarrassment or shame on their family/community- It is difficult for a person to admit that they are being abused. They may internalise their abuse and think it is their fault becoming involved with an abusive partner.
• Cultural/religious reasons- Traditional gender roles supported by someone’s culture or religion may force them to stay in the relationship rather than bringing shame upon the family.
• Lack of money or resources- The victim may not have the financial means to leave the relationship (financial abuse). They are dependent upon their partner for resources to survive; without money, resources, or a place to go, they find it impossible to leave.
• The compulsion to repeat- Freud developed this concept to explain that, due to certain psychological processes, a person has the urge to replay certain events in his/her life. Simply put, this is done because the person wants to gain control over the events; for example, if a child has been subjected to domestic violence, this process (compulsion to repeat) may result in him/her subconsciously selecting perpetrators of violence to have relationships with. The victim situation is therefore repeated.

In addition to the above-mentioned reasons, women may find it difficult to leave these dysfunctional and abusive relationships, as the victim feels genuine love for their partner. They may have children with them and may thus want to preserve the sense of family, despite how dysfunction it may be. Abusive partners may appear charming and loving, especially at the beginning of the relationship. 

The victim may be hopeful that their partner will return to being that ‘kind, loving person’ again. For the victim, they just want the violence to stop, not for the marriage or relationship to end completely.

Disability is another huge factor for the victim not leaving an abusive relationship, particularly if a person is physically dependent upon an abusive partner. The person may believe that their well-being is dependent on him/her, and so, may find reporting the issue difficult.

Perpetrators and their victims are bound together by secrets and silence

The perpetrators and their victims form a highly emotive relationship, bound together by secrets and silence. These are not strangers, but people who often know each other well and play a role in each other’s lives. Disentangling this relationship is as painful and as harmful as the abuse itself.

Identifying a victim of domestic violence is seldom easy, as the victim tries to conceal behaviour or signs that may reveal the possible abuse. Highlighted below are some identifying signs of possible domestic violence and the impact thereof.
This is not a definitive list to identify victims of GBV, but rather an indicative one.

• Unable to make plans to meet friends/family
• Isolate themselves socially
• Money restrictions
• Change in behaviour when in a new relationship
• Unexplained bruises – refusing to seek assistance from a healthcare professional
• Long unexplained absences from work
• The individual refuses to disclose her personal details such as contact number
• She/he does not attend meeting consultations on her/his own
• Post-traumatic stress
• Complex trauma (persistent feelings of emptiness, anger, sadness, self-mutilation) 
• Suicidal ideations
• Living in fear

The impact of GBV 

The impact of GBV is far-reaching and extends beyond the individual survivor to the family and society. It erodes the victim’s psychological, emotional, and physical well-being. Psychological scars often impede the establishment of healthy and rewarding relationships in the future.

Other factors include:

• GBV threatens family structures; children suffer emotional trauma from being exposed to the violence. 
• The family may break up, leaving the new female head of the household to struggle with increased poverty and social repercussions.
• Some victims may discover that they have contracted HIV/AIDS, an unwanted pregnancy, or an STI.

Heed the call of vulnerable women

 Social intervention is crucial if the incidence of gender-based violence is to be reduced or eradicated. The following approaches can be strengthened.

• Advocacy and lobbying for the rights of victims of GBV. 
• Making GBV clinical services more accessible to individuals at primary levels.
• Developing guidelines for building systems that address GBV – implementing laws, raising awareness of services, and making budgets available.
• Providing vital training to professionals such as police, social workers, and courts to help them manage the reporting of GBV in a manner that is effective, protects the victims, and is least dehumanising.

GBV in South Africa and across the world can only be addressed effectively through a collective effort. As we face the new normal with a pandemic that has gripped the world, it is important for us as South Africans to take cognisance of what our President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, described as a ‘second pandemic’, and to use the next 30 days to heed the call of vulnerable women who desperately need to be heard. 


Opinion article by Kubeshni Gounder and Carel van Wyk, Lecturers in the Department of Social Work, University of the Free State

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