When violence becomes normal

Date: May 10, 2011
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He looked me in the eye without a single flinch and said it, “I have done one of these things in the past. I have done things to scare or intimidate my wife on purpose by threatening to hurt her, yelling and smashing things. I have hit, kicked, dragged, beaten and choked her. I have physically forced her to have sex when she did not want to.”

The un-darting eyes, unashamed face and confidence with which these words were uttered said to me that the respondent was wondering why I was even bothering to ask questions that had such an obvious answer. These things were no secret but a common sight and event.

Sadly, this is like many findings from recent Gender Links gender-based violence (GBV) indicators research, conducted in South Africa’s Gauteng province between April and July, which found that 78.3% of the 490 men interviewed admitted to having perpetrated violence against women (VAW) at some point in their lifetime.

This violence could be psychological, sexual, physical or economic. More than one quarter (29%) said they had perpetrated violence in the past 12 months. This shows there is a widespread and pervasive pattern of male abusiveness toward women in this society.

Perpetration of violence by men was measured concurrently with experience by women. One striking observation of the study is that men confirmed what women were more reticent to admit. The same study found that 51.1% of women admitted to having had violence perpetrated against them.

Is it that survivors of violence are afraid of stigma and hence less likely to open up about their experiences? Maybe they are still being abused and don’t want to finger their abusive partners?

Or is the open and massive disclosure by perpetrators a sign that the practice is “normal” and they are unashamed about it? People are usually more likely to lie about behaviour if they are ashamed of it and think others will disapprove. Some may not want to expose their personal evils for fear of punishment.

An exception, however, is when the evil has been legitimised and there are norms justifying it: the “everybody does it” rule.

Yet surely the fact that “everybody” does a wrong does not make it right.

Results show that violence against women has been, and continues to be, legitimised within, and woven throughout, our societal fibres. Communities are still perceived as condoning gender-insensitive attitudes, such as the idea that married women are “owned” by husbands who have a right to punish them when they do wrong.

Most communities still hold that equality of the sexes is only applicable in the public arena and that male entitlement to sex should accompany marriage. These attitudes perpetuate gender imbalances in the home and legitimate sexual and physical intimate partner violence.

Communities in this study were thought to have social norms that blame and stigmatise survivors of violence.

Perceiving a community as accepting abusive norms has been found to justify perpetration of violence as normative. One study conducted in 2000 noted that “perceiving a given behaviour as more common, (“normal”) is associated with greater likelihood of engaging in the behaviour.”

What is most frightening is then what happens when there is a misperception about “everybody” doing it. If only a few are actually engaging in violence and more were only falsely bragging about it, those who were originally not violent may begin to feel that if “everyone is doing it” then they will too. Thus the more community violence is spoken about and overestimated, the more likely the perpetration of interpersonal violence increases in tandem.

Yet as much as strategies should be geared at uprooting these harmful community attitudes, there is also a great need to target the individual. At a personal level, a considerable proportion of men said they expected wives to obey their husbands, and it was viable for men to punish wives for supposed wrongdoing. How these attitudes will be changed is sure to remain a hot topic of debate for years to come.

There is need for change from responsive to preventive programmatic approaches to addressing violence against women. As the proverbs say “prevention is better than cure” and “a stitch in time saves nine”.

Curriculum should incorporate positive and progressive gender messaging from as early as kindergarten and parents must strive to provide a good example of peace at home.

As we begin this year’s 16 Days of Activism, it is important to remember one idea which resonates around this year’s themes of peace and a struggle against violence against women in places of war. Peace is both macro and micro – it begins at home, in our daily lives.

(Mercilene Machisa is the Gender Links GBV Indicators Project Officer. This article is part of a special series on the 16 Days of Activism for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that offers fresh views on everyday news. For the research quoted in this article and more information on the Sixteen Day campaign go to www.genderlinks.org.za).



0 thoughts on “When violence becomes normal”

Jennifer says:

Thank you Mercy for such a shocking article. In some ways I would say you should consider yourself “lucky” that these men were honest. I would imagine that this is something commonly hidden or lied abut. But here it is out in the open.

Maybe in some ways it is worse, since it shows a lack of empathy on behalf of men, and a lack of decency.

Good job!

Ma Vero Nahvomeh says:

People in Africa think that it is normal for women to be treated the way this author has written.It has become common place for the society to think that women can be abused anytime and they have no right to complain. the fact that it has been done over the years does not make it right. It is not because genital mutilation is a tradition for centuries that makes it right. women themselves have to refuse these traditions. Freedom has never been given in a platter. Women have to say “no” to practices that make them look like slaves. Women have to support women through education and helping them through small businesses and skills development so they can earn money to help them keep their homes even when the men elope. the time is now. I want to thank the writer of this article because she has brought out what the women themselves accept as tradition.

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