‘When you escape from abuse, you see that life can be beautiful’: A look at Intimate Partner Violence

Remembering Reeva Steenkamp, Anni Dewani, Jayde Panayiotou

Remember the Emergency Number 0800 150 150

In recent years, South African media has been lit up with the names of these three young women. But sadly, such high-profile cases represent only a drop in the ocean of intimate partner violence in our country.

According to the World Health Organization [1], 35% of women around the world have experienced intimate partner violence (statistics which are contested due to the issue of under-reporting). Shockingly, a report by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the World Health Organization, finds that 45.6% of women across Africa have experienced intimate partner violence. Again, these statistics do not reflect the full reality due to under-reporting, so the true situation may encompass even more women! In South Africa, up to 50% of women are estimated to have suffered, or to be suffering, intimate partner violence [2].

So what is this menacing phenomenon which haunts so many South African women?

While intimate partner violence (IPV) is typically thought of as an ongoing situation in which multiple acts of violence take place over an extended period, even one violent act in a relationship can be described as IPV. In addition, it’s important to emphasize that violence doesn’t just take the form of physical beatings. Emotional abuse – calling your partner names, breaking down their self-esteem and/or self image, and other verbal displays of disrespect – is also a form of violence.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) [3] explain that ‘The term “intimate partner violence” describes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking and psychological aggression (including coercive acts) by a current or former intimate partner.’ An “intimate partner” may be defined as ‘current or former spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, dating partners, or sexual partners.’ The CDC is careful to note that intimate partner violence ‘does not require sexual intimacy’ and can occur between same-sex partners as well as heterosexual partners.

The pervasiveness of IPV in many communities, together with internalised misogyny,  means women often perceive instances of IPV as “normal” or acceptable.

IPV survivor Peggy*, who was in an abusive marriage for 12 years, notes that, ‘One of the hardest things was believing that life could be different. I knew what was happening was wrong but I pushed it deep down and told myself this was normal, because I didn’t feel I had other options. I hadn’t worked for years and I just thought, how would I ever take care of myself. What would happen to my daughter? I was scared, so I told myself everything was really okay.’

Sexual violence is commonly assumed not to occur in intimate relationships – but no matter how many times you have consented to have sex with someone, they have no right to demand sex of you or force you into sexual acts at any time. It is a highly dangerous and damaging misconception that if you have given consent once it is not possible to withhold it in future, or that being in a relationship erases the need for consent.

Moreover, it is not necessary for acts of assault to leave physical marks in order to be classified as violence – any unwanted physical, sexual, or emotional acts or comments directed at one partner by another represents a form of abuse. Victims may fear being disbelieved because ‘society wants to see bruises’. Victims may also feel that, if there are no physical bruises, ‘it wasn’t really that bad.’ But abuse is insidious and can function in implicit, not only explicit, ways. A verbal threat can be as distressing to one person as a physical punch is to another. No one should be ‘policed’ in their reactions to abuse or feel there is an ‘appropriate’ way to respond to any variation of abuse. All forms of abuse must be condemned and dealt with.

In South Africa, some cultural and religious traditions are still used to interpret instances of IPV as “marital discipline”. This conception of “marital discipline” hinges on a deeper underlying view of women as functionally deficient and in need of “correction” and “oversight” by men. Such pervasive patriarchal attitudes reinforce and encourage many instances of IPV.

Often, women suffering from IPV will stay in abusive situations because of financial dependence. Women who are uneducated, have not worked for years, or come from underprivileged backgrounds with few resources, are many times particularly vulnerable to IPV. Many, like Peggy, worry about the future of their children. Financial independence grants women the power to leave abusive relationships, because they do not need a partner to survive. Therefore, ending IPV – indeed, ending all forms of gender based violence – is closely tied to the economic empowerment of women. It’s crucial to note that when a partner takes control over your finances or prevents you from earning money (or removes money you have earned from your reach), this is also abusive behaviour. Women should be cautious of opening joint bank accounts with partners or handing over their money.

If you or someone you know is suffering from IPV, help is available. As Peggy states, ‘When you walk away, when you begin to acknowledge how wrong it was and distance yourself, you also begin to realise how much better things can be. It isn’t easy, but life is so much lighter without that constant knot in your stomach. When you escape from abuse, you see that life can be beautiful.’

For Khulumani, the reality for survivors of gross human rights violations is that those who were victimised, without a process of healing and social support, become the next generation of abusers and the cycles of violence continue. Khulumani’s member needs assessment forms reveal that domestic violence is prevalent in the homes of survivors of gross human rights violations. Children of survivors who witnessed their parents being humiliated and violated by persons acting in the name of the apartheid state, have often assumed the role of the violator who uses violence to stand up against anyone who threatens them as a consequences of their having witnessed the apparent inability of their parents to withstand the abuse meted out to them by authoritarian figures such as police and soldiers.

But the hope is in the possibility of enabling survivors and their children to learn skills for non-violence peacebuilding starting within their homes and their communities, as the Khulumani’s Men’s Forum for Non Violent Community Peacebuilding have shown us.

[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/

[2] http://www.thursdaysinblack.co.za/violence-against-women-%E2%80%93-problem-south-africa-892016

[3] http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/definitions.html

*Not her real name

POWA (People Opposing Woman Abuse) 083 765 1235

FAMSA 011 975 7101


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