02 February 2005

What did I do to make him hit me?

This is a question many women ask themselves when they find themselves in a physically abusive relationship. The answer to this is an unequivocal NOTHING.

This is a question many women ask themselves when they find themselves in a physically abusive relationship. The answer to this is an unequivocal NOTHING.

Many men who are abusive to their partners play the game of “Look what you made me do”, thereby absolving themselves from responsibility for their actions. The truth of the matter is that there are usually a number of women who were abused by your partner before you ever came along. Were you somehow responsible for that too?

Is this normal?

“Women get to accept these unhealthy behaviours as normal and begin to believe that they are the cause of their being beaten, as they are so often told. The man blames his partner for his behaviour, thereby absolving himself from any duty to change or accept responsibility for what he is doing,” according to Niel Henderson, Educational Co-ordinator of Nicro’s Project for Abused Women in Cape Town.

Our society is patriarchal and women often see themselves as trapped and powerless, says Henderson, “An abuser is often extremely charming and persuasive to outsiders, making it even more difficult for a woman to be believed when she complains about abuse – especially emotional abuse”, he says.

The methods of the abuser

“An abuser usually has a tendency to do two things: firstly to isolate his partner from her friends, family and colleagues and secondly to destroy her belief in herself, thereby rendering her helpless in her own eyes,” he adds.

“Many women sustain serious injuries, some leaving them permanently scarred, injured or dead, but the psychological damage is immeasurable on the survivors of domestic violence.”

“Violence against women is the world’s most pervasive form of human rights violation”, according to a report released by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1997. It carries on to say that gender-based violence represents a substantial health burden for women and that it is endemic in most societies.

South African statistics

Sadly, studies done in South Africa show that South African women are by no means exempt from this scourge:

  • 1 in every 4 women are assaulted by their husbands/boyfriends every week (People opposed to Women Abuse – POWA)
  • The average woman stays in an abusive relationship for 10,5 years before leaving (Rape Crisis)
  • 59 percent of murder cases at the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court involved men accused of killing their wives (NICRO)
  • A woman suffers being battered an average of 39 times before she eventually seeks outside help (Burman, Katz and Partners, Port Elizabeth. Paper: Prevention of Family Violence Act 1994)

How do women get into this situation?

“No-one ever plans to become an abused wife. Just like no-one plans to be in a car accident. Even if women were abused before marriage, our society places such a high premium on the married state, that many women see this as the panacea to all their problems.”

“Women have full faith in their abilities to transform even the worst repeat offender through the power of their love. Sadly this does not happen. And by the time a woman realises this, it is often not easy to make a clean break” says Henderson.

Why do women stay in these relationships?

“Very often their self-esteem has become so eroded, that the women diminish what is happening to them. Women also sometimes get to a point where they are so psychologically battered and socially isolated that they believe the stories their partners tell them, adds Henderson. These stories go something like this :

  • No-one else will tolerate your behaviour except me
  • You make me behave in this way – people will not have sympathy with you
  • You are not capable of looking after yourself
  • No-one else will ever love you as you are basically unlovable
  • You are not capable of making decisions on your own
  • No-one will want to employ someone like you
  • You are a bad mother/inadequate spouse
  • You will never survive without me
  • Look at how disloyal/untrustworthy your friends and family are

Many South African women are also financially dependent and would struggle severely to find a job as many of them are not really trained for employment outside the home.

This financial dependence on their husbands/partners keeps many women from leaving abusive relationships. This is used by the abusive partner to stop abused women from leaving. Threats of violence towards her and the children also serve to paralyse her further in the situation. Women trying to leave relationships like these are not infrequently murdered. Fear works as effectively as a tranquilizing dart.

What gives women the strength to leave these relationships?

Needless to say leaving takes an enormous amount of courage, as is proved by the fact that the average woman endures this abusive situation for 10,5 years.

“Most women actually snap and subsequently leave during an abusive phase,” according to Henderson. Many women also leave relationships characterised by violence, once the abuser starts assaulting the children. Financial constraints often keep women trapped in situations they would dearly like to escape.”

“Their isolation also traps them, but once women get to talk to other people who have had similar experiences, they realise that they are not at fault and they can slowly begin rebuilding their self-esteem. They also become aware of alternatives to these abusive relationships, and become aware of the fact that these situations are not normal. This can, however, be a long process, often characterised by returning to and leaving the abuser a number of times.”

“The sad thing as far as the perpetrators of domestic violence are concerned, is that a very small percentage of them change their ways – even with extensive therapy. These men are not trained to have healthy relationships and are in a habit of resolving their conflicts by means of violence,” says Henderson.

Why do men think they have the right to do this?

“They inflict baggage from the past on their current partners and seldom see anything wrong with what they are doing. They see their partners as possessions under their control, from whom they would tolerate no insubordination. They also have a tendency to hold their partner responsible for their behaviour and to accept no liability for their actions, whether they result in broken bones, enormous psychological damage, or even death”.

While women are disempowered further by the courts not taking a strong stand against domestic violence, this situation is likely to become worse than it already is. And this is hardly imaginable. It would appear that women have somehow fallen through the cracks of the Human Rights Charter.

Where to get help

Women who are in need of counselling or referral to women’s groups can phone Lifeline 24 hours a day for the correct telephone numbers. - (Susan Erasmus, Health24)


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