14 July 2020 | Story Andre Damons | Photo Supplied
Dr Jordaan and Dr Lake
Dr Jacques Jordaan and Dr Nadine Lake.

Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa recently said in a televised address that more than 21 women and children have been murdered in South Africa within just a few weeks in what he referred to as “another pandemic raging in our country.” He said this “violence being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension, is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country”.

In many countries, domestic violence is seen as a health risk, as it is one of the main causes of injuries to women between the ages of 15 and 44. In South Africa, it is the most common form of violence experienced by women, says Dr Jacques Jordaan, lecturer and Programme Director of the Psychology Programme at the University of the Free State (UFS). 

“Domestic violence and gender-based violence (GBV) is a global concern. There are different types of GBV, such as rape, attempted rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and marital rape. These acts of violence negatively impact the psychological, physical, and social well-being of the victims,” says Dr Jordaan. 

Why do men commit GBV?

According to Dr Jordaan, a motive for these crimes could be harmful gender norms where men are seen as superior and dominant, and women are seen as weak and submissive. Men learn these cultural norms and use violence to get what they want and expect.

Dr Nadine Lake, lecturer and Programme Director of the Gender Studies programme in the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies at the UFS, says South Africa is an extremely violent country and there is not one specific reason for perpetrating gender-based violence.

According to her, being immersed in a culture of violence may also result in the perpetuation of such violence in intimate relationships. In many cases, men are socialised to believe that they are the decision-makers in relationships and that their partners should respect them. Any deviation from this norm can result in emotional and physical abuse. 

“Any significant power imbalance in a relationship results in abuse where one partner seeks to dominate, control, and hurt their partner. The high statistics on rape and murder in South Africa is also the result of misogynistic attitudes where women become the victims of extreme forms of objectification. Patriarchal attitudes and everyday violence in communities are a toxic combination that impacts negatively on those considered less powerful and more vulnerable in society, especially women,” says Dr Lake.

Dr Jordaan explains that innate (instinct) theories propose that individuals commit violence because they were born with the tendency to gratify their destructive needs. 

Aggression, according to this theory, occurs independently from situations or provocation. According to this theory, individuals exhibit aggression to survive. Learning theories, on the other hand, demonstrate that aggression and violence are learned behaviours. Individuals learn aggressive behaviour through observation and direct experience. Aggressive individuals therefore observe and copy the behaviour of violent others. 

“Studies conducted in 2019 found that aggressive offenders are often formed within their families and are forced by their own experiences of victimisation into offensive behaviour. These studies found that offenders cope with their own victimisation through criminal and aggressive behaviour.” 

“Normative role expectations and unequal power relationships between genders also contribute to such violence. Men are seen to be in leadership roles and are viewed as superior to women. Within these social systems, men believe that they are entitled to certain things, and commit violence towards women and children to exhibit their dominance and power,” says Dr Jordaan. 

Combating the surge in GBV

Dr Lake says in order to combat the surge in GBV cases, it is critical that the government and lawmakers start to take these cases seriously; that perpetrators are prosecuted without delay; and that non-profit organisations focusing on GBV and the empowerment of women, are supported. 

“Widespread education initiatives on gender-based violence should also be rolled out in a coordinated manner in South African communities. Additionally, issues related to gender-based violence, bodily integrity, and healthy relationships should form a mandatory part of secondary and tertiary education in South Africa.”

Dr Jordaan also believes that life-skills training and social-development programmes, which already exist in South Africa, could be provided to children as part of the school curriculum. These programmes should also engage with men and boys to reduce violence against women and children.

Support for these victims is crucial, but the majority of them do not have access to medical and psychosocial support. Response services should be established that will assist these victims in various ways, says Dr Jordaan. “Prevention programmes for both the perpetrators and victims, addressing the causal factors of gender-based violence, should be developed and implemented. These programmes could focus on the social norms that support the culture of violence, by teaching non-violent ways of disciplining children to parents, promoting problem-solving skills, and social skills.” 

Addressing the source of the violence – men 

Education is one of the central means through which we can address the issue of gender-based violence and violent/toxic masculinities, says Dr Lake. “Due to the fact that GBV is often regarded as a problem that affects women, a lot of research and advocacy is focused on the needs and protection of women without focusing on the source of the problem, i.e. violent men.”

“Non-profit organisations such as SONKE Gender Justice and the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) have done important work through community mobilisation and education, positive parenting programmes, and policy development and advocacy, which promote positive and non-violent attitudes in relationships and family life. SONKE has made considerable strides in challenging toxic masculinities, but it is clear that greater political and financial support is needed to strengthen the work and reach of such organisations,” says Dr Lake. 

Furthermore, Dr Lake continues, it is crucial for young men to have positive role models. “The normalisation of violence against women in our society will only change if men in families, churches, schools, universities, businesses, and in government spheres – to name a few – start to challenge these insidious forms of violence. Although it is important that President Ramaphosa is more vocal about the scourge of GBV, it is essential for men to speak out against such violence in solidarity with women, and not for them.” 

Why do victims stay in abusive relationships? 

This is referred to as battered woman syndrome, explains Dr Jordaan. “Battered woman syndrome occurs when women remain in violent relationships or circumstances, since they have developed learned helplessness and believe that they deserve the abuse. These women struggle to take back control of their lives.”

The victim develops learned helplessness, which happens when individuals believe that they are unable to control or change situations because they have repeatedly experienced those stressful situations. “Therefore, they do not even try to overcome the stressful situations, even when opportunities for change become available,” says Dr Jordaan.
According to Dr Lake, victims often stay in abusive relationships because they have no option to leave. Women and their children may be financially dependent on the abusive partner and may therefore find it even more difficult to leave the relationship. 

“Victims may also be too scared to leave the relationship because of ongoing threats that they will be punished, assaulted, or even killed if they think of leaving their abuser. The precarious circumstances and absence of safe spaces outside of the abusive relationship therefore mean that the victim has no alternative but to stay in the relationship. In some instances, women who report abuse are re-victimised by police officials and told to return to their

The impact on victims and how to overcome trauma

Dr Jordaan explains that these acts of violence and aggression lead to psychological trauma among the victims, with several psychological, social, physical, and behavioural consequences. The victims tend to experience psychological difficulties such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies.
Dr Lake says victims of abuse and trauma can seek professional psychological assistance. “In a committed relationship with a psychologist, counsellor, and/or social worker, the victim will be given the opportunity to reflect objectively on the abusive relationship. Furthermore, healthcare professionals will be able to provide the victim with advice and support in a time when it may be especially difficult to be alone.” 

“Building a support network of family and friends that the victim can rely on and confide in, is another important step in overcoming the emotional abuse and resisting the temptation of returning to the abusive relationship.”

Society needs to protect victims

Society needs to recognise that GBV is a common occurrence and that perpetrators are in many cases somebody we know. As a society, we need to be willing to talk about the widespread nature of abuse and the damage it causes in our communities, says Dr Lake.

“We need to actively challenge negative stereotypes such as, ‘men are inherently violent’ or ‘she asked for it.’ Unless we challenge such false assumptions that reinforce negative gender norms, gender-based violence will persist.”

Women experiencing battered woman syndrome may exhibit several signs, such as the following:
• They tend to argue or believe that the abuse was their fault.
• They hide the abuse from significant others as they are ashamed of it.
• They withdraw from their families and do not attend family gatherings.
• They remain in the abusive relationships as they fear for their lives and for the lives of their children.
• They believe that the abuser will change or has changed.
• They appear anxious and fear their partner, as they never know what side of their partner they will experience that day.
• They have unexplained bruises and injuries.

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