I watched them arrive at my office – he, a picture of aggression and distrust, she, the beaten wife. Their body language was all closed, arms folded, shoulders turned away from each other and from me.
They had been sent to me by instruction of the court for a four-session seminar on conflict resolution. She wanted to be there so she could tell her story; he was there only because the court had ordered him. This was going to be tough session…
Domestic abuse is a frightening reality in South African society. The department of Justice estimates that 1 out of every four South African women are survivors of domestic violence. (450.311 Domestic Violence: Submission to the South African Law Commission in the Light of International and Constitutional Human Rights Jurisprudence Part 1, May 1997)
According to POWA 1 in every 6 women who die in Gauteng are killed by an intimate partner.
South Africa is said to have the highest statistics of gender-based violence in the world, which includes rape and domestic violence (Foster 1999; The Integrated Regional Network [IRIN])
These statistics are more than 14 years old, but current statistics are difficult to come by.
I believe that a lack of understanding of the extent of abuse is hampering our efforts at effective management of the problem.
Let’s take the couple mentioned in the introduction, and let’s call them John and Mary. They arrived in court because John kicked three of Mary’s ribs in. Mary is a petite woman of indeterminate age; John, a carpenter, is a leathery spindle of a man in his mid-forties.
In my first session I always allow the participants to “get things off their chests” which can be scary, since things often degenerate into screaming matches. What it does do though, is allow me to get a more honest look into their domestic situation.
Mary’s story was very simple, heard countless times all over South Africa: “My husband beats me and this time I had enough and called the cops.” Since Mary had the law on her side, she was quite confident and happy to see John “get what he deserves” – in this case, a humiliating conflict resolution seminar. John’s story was a far more detailed description of years of domestic strife, leading up to the violence. John did not want to take responsibility for his violent behaviour, instead portraying himself as a “victim” of an “evil woman”, which made him “snap”.
Domestic violence is a very serious matter, but unfortunately we often make assumptions based on emotions. As a counsellor, and a man, husband and father, it is sometimes really difficult to remain objective and not choose sides – my natural instinct is to take the woman’s side. However, if you can put your emotions aside for one minute, you might see a very different picture emerging – a picture that can assist us in understanding and managing domestic abuse. Making both victim and perpetrator aware of their actions and the various forms of abuse, is part and parcel of abuse counselling and is needed to bring couples onto a path of recovery.
Physical abuse gets all the press. It gets people into court, and the evidence is as real as the blood. Easily prosecuted, this is the one that brings the cops. Unfortunately, this is often only the culmination of other, less easily identified and prosecutable abuse. It’s easy to find evidence for things like hitting, smacking, pushing, shoving or kicking, but it’s far more difficult to prove “less violent” things like spitting, bear hugging, holding onto clothes or any unwelcome physical contact.
At the one extreme of sexual abuse, violent rape is prosecutable, since there is physical evidence. But much more difficult to prove, and I believe rampant, is non-violent sexual abuse. Very few courts will prosecute a husband for “cajoling” a wife into a sexual act. Luckily the law has changed significantly in later years to include marital rape, but less subtle abuse is mostly overlooked. And some of my participants are shocked to hear that using sex (or withholding it) as a weapon, is classed as abuse – in this regard there are many women also guilty of abuse. In this statement I am not talking about a woman’s right to say no, I am simply talking about instances where sex becomes a weapon used to control or hurt the partner.
Then there’s emotional abuse – I know of very few court cases where someone has gone to jail for this, but it is as real as any other abuse. It includes jealousy, obsessive behaviour, humiliation, breaking the person down, harping on mistakes, harping on the past, making the person feel guilty all the time, etc. Sometimes I think a life of emotional abuse is worse than physical abuse – physical wounds can heal, but emotional wounds take years and sometimes lifetimes to heal, if ever.
Verbal abuse is sometimes classed along with emotional abuse, but I class it separately since I want people to realise that speaking in a disrespectful tone is classed as abuse. Swearing at your partner is never acceptable, but so are unwanted pet names! A relationship that is not based on mutual respect is often evident to outsiders by the language it uses.
Not providing your household with the finances it needs to run is classed as economic abuse. As we all know, money and sex are the two most volatile topics in a marriage so it follows that this is a big one. The breadwinner has a duty to provide for the family – that’s the deal you signed when you said “I do” or decided to move in together. Many households are “dual income” partnerships, and then the problem of “your money and my money” is just as problematic. However, overspending your partner’s contribution is also abuse! Withholding money, wasting money, using money as a weapon, these are all abusive behaviours and lead to huge conflict.
Stalking is also a form of abuse, and includes unwelcome visitations and meetings, as well as hanging around the victim’s usual hang-outs, hoping for a “chance meeting”. Obsessive behaviour in this context is dangerous and victims must report such actions immediately.
Any forceful attempt to make your partner adhere to your ideologies – ie. any form of intimidation –is considered abuse. You may not force or even coerce your partner into voting the same as you, to join the same church, adhere to the same value system, or even shop at the same shops. In terms of South African law, these actions are illegal, but in terms of the marriage or other committed relationships, these behaviours are destructive.
After I had explained these and other examples of abuse, John and Mary began to realise something: they were both guilty of some form of abuse. Now before you stone me, I am not saying all domestic abuse victims are also guilty of abuse, but the road to healing begins with partners taking responsibility for their actions, whatever they might be.
Mary, for example, had never worked, and tended to spend John’s salary, giving him virtually no control over the finances. She also swore at him publicly, and berated and belittled him in front of the children. And of course none of these actions warrants or justifies his violent behaviour, but they nevertheless constitute abuse!
Domestic abuse is a hugely destructive force in modern living. And among the other challenges like the availability of pornography (a huge contributor to domestic abuse in my opinion), financial pressures in these hard times, the general degradation of the moral fibre of society, our relationships are under severe pressure.
In my line of work, I see some of the worst man has to offer, but I can assure you, domestic abuse is not limited to race, religion or financial status. It affects us all like the ripples in a pond. Breaking the cycle starts with awareness.