Breaking the silence

2013-06-23 14:00

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What happened to Nigella Lawson resonates with SA women, and men, reports Biénne Huisman.

In South Africa, the issue of domestic abuse cuts close to the bone, with the Domestic Violence Act doing little to curb the crippling scourge of such gender-based violence.

According to study findings released by the World Health Organisation this week, more than a third of all women worldwide – 35.6% – will experience physical violence in their lifetime, usually from a male partner.

“Sometimes women are just too strong and men can’t deal with that,” said divorced hairdresser and mother of three, Merryl Dowsett.

“Nigella Lawson seems like a strong woman.”

Patrons at the hair salon nodded their assent.

Furr Hair in Cape Town was abuzz over the incident on Tuesday – as were TV channels, newspapers and social media across the globe.

Local experts concur that Charles Saatchi downplaying his wife’s public humiliation – at his own hands – was symptomatic of the broader problem.

Pretoria sexologist Professor Elna McIntosh said: “This whole Nigella incident is yet again an example of men who will minimise gender-based violence and call it ‘a playful tiff’. This is shocking and an example of how men treat women, regardless of money and status. Very often, highly successful women stay in abusive relationships because they are too embarrassed for society to be aware of the state of affairs.”

Experts hope that Lawson’s case – which follows Rihanna’s beating by Chris Brown and questions around Reeva Steenkamp’s death – will prompt victims of domestic abuse to speak up.

In her 2009 memoir, Crazy Love, American journalist and author Leslie Morgan Steiner documents her marriage to an abusive man: “He regularly put a loaded gun against my head, pushed me down stairs, and threatened to kill our dog.”

Steiner delivered a popular talk on why victims stay with abusive partners, which was uploaded on TED in January.

She tells how her ex-husband throttled her for the first time a week before their wedding, and twice a week for the next two years of their marriage.

“Eventually, I broke the silence,” she said. “I realised he was going to kill me. I told everyone: the police, our neighbours, my friends and family. You have the power to stop it by talking about it.”

South African men are entering the fray. Mandla Ndlovu, the programme manager for Brothers For Life, is planning a rally against domestic abuse.

“It’s aimed at mobilising thousands of men to stand up in an effort to stop horrific acts of gender-based violence witnessed in our country,” said Ndlovu.

The rally is planned for August 24 in Joburg, and all men “who believe in equality, healthy families and safe communities” are invited to attend.

Brothers For Life recommends that if alcohol makes you more likely to commit violence, start drinking less; be a role model to younger boys in your community; and if you are abusive to your partner or your children, call the Stop Gender-Based Violence Helpline on 0800?150?150 for help.

The throttle felt across the world

Pictures showing British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson being throttled by her advertising mogul husband have sparked fury across the world.

In one fell swoop, Lawson’s image morphed from sultry domestic goddess to a tearful face for domestic abuse.

The series of photographs, first published in British newspaper The Sunday People last weekend, showed a distressed Lawson (53) with Charles Saatchi (70) grabbing hold of her neck at a London restaurant.

The Daily Mail reported that Saatchi accepted a “caution for assault” from authorities the next day.

His explanation that the incident had been a “playful tiff” during a debate over her children from a previous marriage was widely condemned as inadequate.

The high-profile altercation became a political bouncing ball this week, with British party leaders Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband adding their two cents’ worth.

On his weekend phone-in show, Clegg incited rage by suggesting the assault may have been a “fleeting thing”. Miliband said he recoiled when he saw the “horrifying” pictures and that he would certainly have “intervened” had he witnessed the assault.

Lawson appeared in public without her wedding ring on Wednesday, but has remained silent, as many assault victims do.

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