13 February 2009

Rihanna's not alone

This week's Grammy Awards were overshadowed by news that singer Rihanna was allegedly beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown. What makes a woman stay with an abusive partner?

This week's Grammy Awards were overshadowed by news that Barbados-born singer Rihanna had allegedly been so severely beaten up by her boyfriend Chris Brown that some reports claim she will need plastic surgery to her face.

The violent nature of this attack, plus some reports which claim she plans on staying with her boyfriend, have sparked fierce discussion on why some women stay with an abusive partner. Rihanna is one of millions of women who suffer unspeakable abuse at the hands of their partners every day.

How do women get into this situation?

No one ever plans to become an abused woman. Just like no-one plans to be in a car accident. Even if a woman were abused before her marriage, many are victims of the hope/belief that they can transform even the worst repeat offender through the power of love. Of course this does not happen. And by the time a woman realises this, it is often not easy to get away.

Our society is patriarchal and women often see themselves as trapped and powerless, says Niel Henderson, who was educational co-ordinator of Nicro’s Project for Abused Women in Cape Town when Health24 spoke to him. “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. “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.

“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 Henderson. “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.”

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," he added. 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 women stay in abusive relationships because they are financially dependent and unskilled. Threats of violence towards the partner 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 tranquilising dart.

What gives women the strength to leave these relationships?
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, stated Henderson. Many women also leave relationships characterised by violence once the abuser starts assaulting the children.

Once women get to talk to others who have had similar experiences, they realise they are not at fault and they can slowly begin rebuilding their self-esteem. They become aware of alternatives, and aware of the fact that thier situation is not normal. This can, however, be a long process, often characterised by returning to and leaving the abuser a number of times.

“A very small percentage of perpetrators 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,” said Henderson.

“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.”

Women can be disempowered further by the courts not always taking a strong stand against domestic violence, but laws in this regard seem to be changing.

Women in need of counselling or referral to women’s groups can phone Lifeline 24 hours a day: go to for numbers.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated February 2009)


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