Blame and shame endangers victims of abuse

“You must have done something to make him treat you this way. Don’t air your dirty laundry in public. It’s up to you to make it work. We all have problems, yours are nothing special.”

These words, and others like them, are so often heard by women who are victims of gender based violence, and intimate partner violence in particular, according to Pertunia Bopape, an occupational therapist and COPE manager at Netcare Akeso Nelspruit.

Bopape says that as a country infamous for its high rate of femicide, it is nothing short of tragic that so many women in South Africa who are victims of abuse and who choose to speak out are blamed, shamed or made to feel that there is nothing remarkable in their experience.

Significant underreporting

“Due to the fear that abused women experience, especially when it comes to violence in an intimate relationship, we suspect a significant number of unreported cases nationally. Many of these women have been terrorised by their partners to the point of being too afraid to tell anyone what is happening to them.

“Economic factors also play a considerable role, with the wide gap in education and employment equity contributing to the weak financial position in which many women find themselves. This makes the woman reliant on her partner and unable to leave him if she has nowhere else to go and no other means of survival. For these women, the situation can feel quite hopeless, especially when there are children involved,” says Bopape.

“A woman’s choice to stay in an abusive relationship is then often reinforced by the feedback she receives at a societal level. This can range from fear of judgement at having a failed relationship and a perceived loss of status to feeling pressurised by the stereotype that women are the rock of the household, that they must endure the pain and suffer in silence.”

 

Not only physical abuse

Bopape points out that there can be a general misconception that abuse always involves physical harm. However, intimate partner violence includes any form of abuse that causes harm and affects the safety or wellbeing of a woman physically, emotionally, or in other ways. This can include acts such as stalking and damage to property as well.

“Physical abuse is far more common than many people realise across all levels of society, with abusers often hurting women on parts of their body that are hidden by clothes. This type of abuse is also usually accompanied by emotional abuse including threats if she should talk about it, isolation from family and friends, and trying to control every aspect of the woman’s life, listening in on her conversations, checking her messages, looking through her bank transactions and so on.

 

“We also often encounter the assumption that sexual abuse cannot exist between intimate partners because the nature of their relationship is intimate. This is however not the case. Even in an intimate relationship sexual contact must be consensual, otherwise it is considered abuse. When male partners sexually abuse their female partners it comes from a place of malicious intent to exert power and control, to send the message ‘you belong to me’.

“Emotional abuse can accompany physical and sexual abuse or it can be carried out on its own. This may be in the form of insults and blackmail, it could be the silent treatment, and it can be the use of both. The ultimate aim is always the same – to cause suffering.

“When it comes to intimate partners, one of the most common forms of abuse is financial – when the male partner takes control of the how the woman uses money, even if it has been earned by her. This is one of the most insidious ways he can exert power over her, as at first it may seem that he is making her life easier by ‘taking care of things’ and that he is providing for her. Over time she may become financially totally dependent on him, stripping her of any means to leave him,” she says.

 

The mental toll

Victims of intimate partner abuse can experience a range of mental health issues, including depressive episodes, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and self-esteem problems that can lead to substance abuse triggering further mental health conditions, Bopape explains. She notes that the impact of the abuse can be so severe as to result in suicidal thoughts, ideations, or attempts.

“Women in abusive circumstances may withdraw from life and isolate themselves from family and friends, with a diminished interest in the things they usually love doing. In cases of PTSD they may have trouble sleeping, feel constantly jumpy, have anger outbursts, feel a lack of motivation to do anything and have regular memories or flashbacks of what they have been through, often making it difficult for them to form new relationships as all trust in others is lost. Sometimes the victim may experience generalised anxiety or anxiety about certain things, for example they may have a panic attack when it is time to go home from work,” she says.

 

Impact on children

“Even if they themselves are not victims of abuse, children who grow up in households where there is intimate partner violence can be severely impacted. Kids really do learn by example, so those who grow up observing abuse at home on a regular basis may well grow up to be abusers themselves, or to seek out similar relationships as adults.

“Parents also often do not realise that children can experience serious mental health issues from a young age, including depression, anxiety and PTSD to name a few. When family or friends do get involved the focus tends to be on the mother as the primary victim, but children may not be able to express themselves and require a great deal of attention in these situations as well,” says Bopape.

“Signs to look out for in children who are in an abusive home can include a change in sleeping and eating patterns, sudden changes in activity levels and in play, no longer playing with friends and impacted school performance with a sudden drop in marks or sleeping a lot at school due to fear of sleeping at home. Bedwetting, particularly after age nine, can be a sign of abuse in the home too.”

 

What can be done

Bopape says that it is important for women suffering abuse to start by telling someone – either a person in your life who you trust or one of the organisations that assist women who are victims of violence. “Local clinics can be very helpful in this regard and it is highly advisable for women who have suffered physical or sexual abuse to have a J88 form filled out by a medical doctor or registered nurse. This is a formal record of the injuries sustained following an incident of physical or sexual violence and can assist you should you wish to press charges.

“It is very important for victims to note that the J88 is not a charge in itself, it is simply a legal record of what has transpired, so you do not need to fear having this assessment done. It can really help you further down the line if one day you decide to press charges against your abuser, even if you feel you are not able to do so right now.

“Beyond this, at a societal level we have got to change the way we talk about abuse. Support for abused women needs to become normalised, instead of the abuse itself and we need to openly condemn all the different types of intimate partner violence that exist,” she concludes.

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