Violence begins at home

2012-09-22 09:27

We seldom consider how violence in the home cements the tendency towards violence more generally.

To ignore the impact of domestic violence on the direct victims and the children who witness it is to ignore one of the most important causes of societal violence.

Although this week’s crime statistics generally show a decrease in most crime categories, the average of about 42 murders, 277 violent robberies and 527 serious assaults reported each day to the police shows that violence remains a serious problem in South Africa.

These statistics show that women are the victims in nearly 30% – 57 410 cases in the last financial year – of all serious assaults.

Addressing domestic violence is an essential component of building a safer and less violent society.

Research tells us that children who witness violence at home – whether they see or hear it, or see blood and bruises on a parent’s face or body – will experience depression, anxiety, guilt and fear.

They will struggle to concentrate at school, may find it difficult to interact with their peers and have low self-esteem.

When they grow up, they are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and, importantly, are more likely to become victims or perpetrators of violence themselves.

Domestic violence starts a wider cycle of violence that impacts well beyond the home.

This kind of violence also produces an economic burden.

It is a drain on the health and criminal justice budgets, and it reduces the victim’s ability to work and be productive.

In South Africa the yearly cost of just processing protection orders for victims of domestic violence is about R38 million.

Like rape, domestic violence is often not reported to the police unless the victim is seriously injured.

Last year, the police reported that they had recorded 100 000 cases of domestic violence.

Yet research conducted by Gender Links, a gender equality and justice non-governmental organisation, in Gauteng and released last year found that more than half of the women interviewed for the study had experienced some form of domestic violence, and 75.5% of men admitted to have been violent towards their partners.

However, less than half of the women who experienced domestic violence reported it to police.

This indicates that the problem is far more prevalent than is suggested by police statistics.

The government has put in place a number of measures to address domestic violence, including establishing several interdepartmental task teams, publishing strategies and passing the Domestic Violence Act to enable the courts to deal with these cases.

But there remains very little support for the women and children – and sometimes men – who experience violence at home.
Given that there is only one social worker for every 3 000 South Africans (compared with one police officer for every 304 South Africans), it is impossible to reach all victims, even if they do come forward and report.

There is no easy short-term solution as this is a complex problem that requires personal and social change.

It also requires long-term commitment because results will only become evident after a number of years.

One possible solution is to follow a public health approach.

Taking this approach requires that we focus equal attention on all forms of violence (child abuse, gender-based violence, men-on-men violence, gang violence and so on) because one form of violence feeds into another.

This approach means that we need to focus most of our attention on preventing violence in the first place, and supporting and helping victims.

Taking a public health approach, rather than a criminal justice approach, means that all the factors that contribute to violence, including childhood experiences, education, alcohol or drug use and relationships with family, should be considered and addressed as part of the solution.

That is important because we know that circumstances at home, work and school as well as societal factors such as poverty and unemployment and tolerance of violence, all contribute to the problem.

The public health approach also looks at beliefs, societal norms, policies and laws that influence behaviour, and determine government and public responses to violence.

The question is often asked: Why are South Africans so violent? We point to the structural violence of apartheid, the failures of the education system, inequality and poverty, all of which are indeed contributory factors.

However, none of these can be addressed through policing, the courts or prisons. Interventions are needed at local community level.

Such interventions are led by non-governmental organisations that support parents and that work to change the way in which we understand gender roles as well as provide shelters and support to the victims of domestic violence.

Equally important are initiatives to support young men and boys, so they do not accept the dominant, destructive notions of what it is to be a man.

Yet, these initiatives are often undersupported since they cannot rely on a stable income.

In addition, unfortunately these kinds of efforts, where they do occur, are easily undermined by politicians and the media, who are quick to reinforce negative gender stereotypes.

»Gould is a senior researcher in the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies

»Abrahams is a senior researcher in the gender and health research unit of the Medical Research Council

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