The key to addressing the scourge of brutality against women and children was breaking the intergenerational cycle of violence, experts have argued as in most cases it becomes a common highlighted factor of violence.
“This is not a South African phenomenon as it happens all over the world. However, the levels of violence against women and children are experienced in larger numbers in SA,” explained Associate Professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Children’s Institute, Shanaaz Mathews.
“Adverse and traumatic childhood experiences is an important part of what sets men’s pathway to take on violent masculinities. When you are exposed to early childhood trauma you are unable to regulate and interpret your own feelings and those of others and this is one explanation for men to be able to commit such crimes as they are not in touch with their own feelings due to being emotionally scarred as a child.”
Mathews said a child who had been exposed to childhood trauma such as the death of a parent, harsh discipline from caregivers, emotionally detached parents, and an absent father, faced a potential pathway to being a violent male later in life.
“The violence they perpetrate towards their own intimate partner and children leads to a vicious cycle of the next generation also becoming violent. It is critical for us to break this intergenerational cycle of violence.”
Western Cape Department of Social Development spokesperson, Sihle Ngobese, said the reasons behind horrific acts were multifaceted and often a consequence of the breakdown of the family and intergenerational cycles of violence.
“Experts who we recently hosted at the Child Protection Dialogue also pointed out patriarchal societal norms, which see unhealthy relations. The stability of families is key, as experts argue that the norms learnt within the family environment are carried on by the children raised within these homes. Thus people raised as victims of family violence, can themselves later in life perpetuate the same abusive behaviours, and become perpetrators.”
Ngobese said the department was deeply concerned about escalating levels of violence against women and children which shattered lives with victims often suffering from the far-reaching consequences of violence for the rest of their lives.
“The cost of violence is high. The increasingly violent nature of the incidents is what is getting concerning,” he said.
Nicolette van der Walt from ACVV, a non-profit organisation that specialises in Social work and Child Protection, said: “As a social worker with more than 30 years experience in the child protection field, these horrific acts still touch me deeply; I and other social workers are bombarded with the trauma of others”.
She said that gender attitudes, gender inequality, and the controlling behaviour of men were some of the factors which contributed to the crimes being committed.
“Patriarchal norms and actions; this is one of the most important reasons, in my opinion, together with Calvinistic norms and standards about the role of women and children in society. Abuse of power, often rape or sexual abuse is not about the sexual act but the abuse of power and emotional manipulation and also the economic power. Family violence has an intergenerational effect and males often “learn” behaviour and attitudes in their family of origin.”
She also pointed out “poor enforcement of laws”, especially with repeat offenders and poor or absent policing was one of the reasons behind the commission of the crimes.
Van der Walt said that the incidence of violence and abuse of women and children was a scary reality in South Africa.
“We see it every day and we know that most cases aren’t even reported. Abuse and violence against women and children does indeed cut across all levels of society but poor children and women are more vulnerable.”
According to Dumisile Nala, National Executive Officer at ChildLine SA in Durban, these were children and young people who had suffered horrendous forms of violence against them.
“In all the cases highlighted, the people who committed these crimes were known to the victims. The victims had no reason to be suspicious of them. They lived in the same home or community. The victims might have trusted them and some held position of power and authority over the victims.”
She said that “this is a phenomenon that certainly cuts across race, class, culture and religion and is a reflection of the society we live in”.
“There seems to be little regard for the lives of others particularly women and children. There are many other cases that do not even make it to the courts’ system,” she said.
So what could be done to contain and successfully address the culture of violence in South African societies?
“The enactment and enforcement of legislation on crime and violence are critical for establishing norms of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and creating safe environments for all citizens,” explained Ngobese.
“One suggestion could be to develop a national action plan to address violence against women and children. We could include intimate partner and sexual violence in this plan. But good data is needed to know where it is happening, the groups at risk and to monitor progress. This is why I support suggestions by the Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, for the initiation of research into this matter.”
Ngobese said existing research indicated that violence could be prevented, and part of efforts going forward must ensure that services to victims were comprehensive and informed by credible data.
“This means enforcing laws and continuously reviewing their quality. We should set baselines and targets, and track progress. On the psycho-social front, we should promote gender equity and a climate of zero-tolerance for violence and prevention at a young age.”
Professor Mathews said that “we need a multi-pronged approach to prevent violence using evidence-informed strategies that target communities and populations most at risk to reduce experiences of violence”.
Van der Walt said: “Invest in preventing and early intervention at a school level, better training of police officials and others who come in contact with victims, stricter enforcement of laws”.
“There must be a new level of commitment from all resources and all levels of government to collectively address this problem. Train parents about relationships and parenting. No single sector, be it police, health, welfare, etc. can do this alone. We need to heal our country together,” she said.