As we mark the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, it’s important for all South Africans to understand what gender-based violence is and what they can do to support its many victims.
This guide can help you to help those who are suffering abuse, so we encourage you to read it carefully and share it with those around you.
What is gender-based violence?
Gender-based violence generally involves violence between men and women, in which the woman is usually the target, as a result of an unequal power relationship with the man. This kind of violence affects many more women than men, and it usually occurs simply because the target is a woman.
It can take the form of physical, sexual, and/or psychological harm. The most pervasive form of gender-based violence is the abuse of women by their intimate male partners. Gender-based violence includes but is not limited to:
- Intimate partner violence (including marital rape, sexual violence, and dowry/bride price-related violence)
- Sexual abuse of female children, including those in the household
- Honour crimes
- Underage marriage
- Forced marriage
- Female genital mutilation, cutting and other traditional practices harmful to women
- Sexual harassment and intimidation at work, at school and elsewhere
- Commercial sexual exploitation
- Trafficking of girls and women
What are the signs of gender-based violence in a relationship?
- S/he appears afraid of their partner or is always very anxious to please him or her.
- S/he has stopped seeing friends or family, or cuts phone conversations short when the partner is in the room.
- Their partner criticises or humiliates them in front of others.
- Their partner forces or pressures them to perform sexual acts.
- Their partner often makes the decisions.
- S/he often talks about their partner’s ‘jealousy’, ‘bad temper’ or ‘possessiveness’.
- S/he has become anxious or depressed, has lost confidence, or is unusually quiet.
- S/he has physical injuries (such as bruises, broken bones, sprains, cuts and so forth) with unlikely explanations for these injuries.
- In the case of children: they seem afraid, display behavioural problems, or are noticeably withdrawn or anxious.
How should I react to gender-based violence, and why is my reaction important?
If the victim feels supported and encouraged, s/he may feel stronger and better able to make decisions. If the victim feels judged or criticised, s/he may be afraid to tell anyone else about the abuse again, and it will continue to occur.
Why is it hard to leave an abusive partner?
It can be difficult to understand why someone would stay in a relationship if s/he is being treated badly. Leaving may appear to be a simple solution. You might think that the abuse is partly the victim’s fault because s/he puts up with it, or that s/he is weak or stupid if s/he stays. It is hard to imagine what it is like to be abused when you are not in the situation yourself. From the outside, it may seem easier to leave than it actually is.
The reality is, it can be very difficult to leave an abusive partner. This is an important thing for friends and family to understand.
What can I do to help?
Many people worry that they will be ‘interfering’ if they get involved, or that it is a ‘private matter’. But it is equally worrying if someone is being abused and you say nothing. Your support CAN make a difference.
Approach the person sensitively, without being critical. Most people will appreciate an expression of concern for their well-being, even if they are not ready to talk about their situation, and it is unlikely you will make things worse by expressing concern.
- Talk to the victim and help them to open up. You may have to try several times before s/he will confide in you.
- Try to be direct and start by saying something like, ‘I’m worried about you because…’ or ‘I’m concerned about your safety’.
- Do not judge the person.
- Listen and believe what s/he tells you. Too often, people do not believe a person when they first disclose abuse.
- Reassure them that the abuse is not their fault and that you are there to support them.
- Don’t tell them to leave their partner or criticise them for staying. This is not your decision – it is theirs. Research shows that abused women are at greatest risk at the point of separation and immediately after leaving an abusive partner.
- Leaving takes a great deal of strength and courage, as well as planning and external support. The victim often faces huge obstacles such as having nowhere to go, no money and/or no one to turn to for help.
- Focus on supporting them and building their self-confidence.
- Acknowledge their strengths and frequently remind them that they are coping well with a challenging and stressful situation.
- An abused person is often isolated and has no meaningful support. Help them to develop or maintain their outside contacts. This can also boost their self-esteem.
- If s/he has not spoken to anyone else, encourage them to seek the help of a local domestic violence organisation that understands the plight of the victim and offers experienced support and advice.
- Be patient. It can take time for a victim to recognise they’re being abused and even longer to get out. Recognising the problem is a critical first step.
What should I not do?
- Never blame the victim for the abuse or ask questions such as, ‘What did you do to your partner to make them treat you like that?’, ‘Why do you put up with it?’ or ‘How can you still be in love with your partner?’ These questions suggest that the victim is to blame, which isn’t the case.
- Don’t keep trying to work out the ‘reasons’ for the abuse. Concentrate on supporting the person who is being abused.
- Don’t be critical if s/he says s/he still loves their partner, or if s/he leaves but then returns to the relationship. Leaving an abusive partner takes time, and your support is important, whether s/he stays or leaves.
- Don’t criticise the partner; criticise the abusive behaviour and let the victim know that no one has the right to abuse (for example, say: ‘Your partner shouldn’t treat you like that.’). Criticism of the partner is only likely to make the victim want to defend them.
- Don’t give advice, or tell the victim what you would do. This will only further damage their confidence. Listen and give information, not advice.
- Don’t pressure the victim to leave or try to make decisions on their behalf. Focus on listening and supporting the victim to make their own decisions. S/he knows the situation best.
How can Marie Stopes help?
At Marie Stopes, our staff are experienced in offering professional advice in a caring, non-judgemental environment. Whether we counsel a client or provide healthcare services, it all remains confidential, and women can feel comfortable and cared for when they visit a Marie Stopes centre.