Gender-based violence has been normalised and accepted by communities to such an extent that victims are sometimes encouraged — by those close to them — to stay in abusive relationships.This is the concern expressed by the Lifeline Pietermaritzburg director Sinikiwe Biyela in her recent interview with Weekend Witness. In a month, the organisation receives approximately 300 new clients who are rape survivors and Biyela said there is an increase in other forms of violence.During the 2017/18 year, Lifeline supported 11 608 survivors of gender-based violence, of which 6 315 were at the hands of their intimate partners and 4 625 were sexual assaults. This was a huge spike from the 6 315 gender-based violence cases attended to in 2016/17.“There is a big crisis because we are just talking about uMgungundlovu ...“Intimate-partner violence also takes a lot of our time but what’s worrying about this is that it’s like a norm. “You get young girls who are being abused by their older lovers and when you speak to them they tell you that these men hit them because they love them.” She said South Africans need to do some introspection on how they contribute to such violence.“As a society, we are guilty of making the soil fertile for this kind of violence to continue. From the way we raise our children — girls are given chores to prepare them to be wives. “You don’t hear parents telling their daughters to learn how to cook so that they won’t spend their money on takeaway foods. They are groomed to think that they need to grow up to serve a man.” She said that the girls who are forced into undergoing virginity testing were encouraged to preserve themselves for their future husbands. “Girls are made to believe that they will not be worthy if they lose their virginity before marriage and that might even compromise the lobola negotiations.” She said most women in abusive relationships are also told by their peers to persevere and those who divorce their abuser are stigmatised and called derogatory names. Biyela said the scourge of intimate-partner violence is also on the increase in tertiary institutions around Pietermaritzburg.“I’m not sure what universities are doing about this but we are getting a lot of reports of students being battered by their partners at residences but fellow students and even security guards don’t even bother to intervene, even if the victims are crying their lungs out and the entire building can hear.”She said the concern is that the young men who are perpetuating this kind of violence will grow into abusive husbands because they are repeatedly getting away with it. “My question is how are we, as mothers, raising our sons? I’m posing this question to women because the statistics indicate that most families are headed by females. Could it be that we are raising our sons to believe that they are entitled to beat up their partners?”Biyela said society, especially black people, should stop belittling men who are loving and who treat their partners with care.“Could it be that as females we are sending confusing messages to males? Men who are not abusive are called nasty names and mostly by women. Some even say they have been bewitched by their wives to make them ‘soft’.“Are we raising our sons to think they will only be considered ‘man enough’ if they beat up women?”She also expressed her concerns about the support that men who are accused of rape receive from women, yet the survivors are publicly crucified and even threatened, as with the case of Cheryl Zondi, who recently testified in an ongoing court matter involving prominent Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso. “We’ve seen cases where even the mothers of the rape survivors side with the perpetrators because they are financially dependent of them. It’s just heartbreaking.”Sugar daddiesSome parents turn a blind eye to sugar daddies because of the economic benefits they reap from “prostituting” their children. “When you tell parents that their 16-year-old is sleeping with an older man they tell you that they won’t intervene because the sugar daddy buys groceries for them and gives them money,” said Biyela.She said poverty is no excuse for turning a blind eye to things that could destroy a child’s life.Biyela and her seven siblings struggled when they were growing up, after losing both their parents when she was barely a teenager, but she said prostituting themselves was never an option. “By allowing these relationships to continue, the parents are actually trapping their daughters in a life of poverty because they might fall pregnant before they’ve completed their education and become financially independent.”She said when Lifeline tells the girls about the risk of HIV they always get a response like: “I will live with HIV for years but if I don’t get something to eat I’ll die before then.” Emotional wounds should not be ignoredBiyela said most South Africans are walking around with emotional scars that never heal because they are ignored so they have never got “treated and dressed” like physical scars. “Normally people are very quick to give advice when someone comes to them with a problem and that undermines that person because who said that person hadn’t thought of that? Sometimes people come to you because they just want someone to listen.”She said the ignorance is deliberate because most people do not want to deal with emotional pain. “Very few people are comfortable about talking about their pain because we are a nation that does not want to deal with sadness; we are just not socialised that way.”Biyela said most people do not feel comfortable opening up even to their own families about how they are really feeling. “We don’t have a problem with a person being happy all year round but the moment they are sad, we want them to ‘get over it’ quickly, instead of giving them emotional support for as long as they need.“As a child you are allowed to cry when you are sad but as you grow up you are discouraged from showing any emotions other than happiness … Adults are even berated for being ‘weak’ if they are seen crying, and that attitude makes it as if their pain is not valid.” Biyela said sometimes people are told they should let go of grudges when they eventually find the courage to speak about what is hurting them. “Anger is like any other emotion but when people express it everyone is very quick to question it. Once you show anger you are labelled as being aggressive and everyone tries to calm you down so you are forced into suppressing it and no one cares about the harm that it does to you.”She said most of the social ills — such as drug abuse and alcoholism — that South Africans battle with stem from the unattended emotional scars. “We should stop being reactive and start re-educating ourselves so that we are able to understand emotional pain and treat it with the same urgency that we treat physical injuries. Just because we don’t see any blood doesn’t mean that a person is not bleeding,” said Biyela.Speaking to your childChildren should be encouraged to ask questions, even the so-called embarrassing ones because you’d rather they know the truth than get wrong advice from their peers.Biyela said society has created an “invisible ceiling” when it comes to asking questions and teenagers suffer the brunt of that. “Teenagers must be encouraged to ask questions even about things such as such as abortion, without being judged or reprimanded or made to feel ashamed. “The reality is that young people are having sex, so pretending that they are not is not going to help anyone. You’d rather they get proper counsel so that they can make wise decisions,” she said. She said that through Lifeline’s Youth in Schools programme they are able to engage with young people on sexual reproductive health and their rights. One of the topics they discuss is virginity testing. “They tell us that they go for testing to please their parents. They pass these tests but they engage in anal sex to please their boyfriends. “That is a big concern for us because it puts them at a risk of being infected with HIV because there is no lubrication and most likely there will be some tearing.”Biyela said the parents need to be educated because they think their children are safe and will not fall pregnant because they are still virgins but their health status is being compromised by the sexual activities they engage in. “Some parents are shocked when we tell them about this because they’d never considered the possibility of anal sex. That’s why those difficult conversations between parents and their children are important so that the virginity testing becomes a child’s choice rather than a parent forcing it down his or her throat.” Lifeline is also conducting an awareness campaign to sensitise parents about the dangers associated with “publicising” their children’s virginity status. Biyela said they have dealt with several cases where teenage girls were targeted by rapists after they returned from the testing ceremonies.“Some males are under peer pressure from their friends who brag to them about sleeping with virgins.” She said girls should be empowered to make wise decisions about their sexual health instead of being forced into certain things.Who is Lifeline PMB?Lifeline PMB provides a range of confidential counselling and training services to the Midlands communities. Their counsellors and trainers are active in various clinics and hospitals, schools and rural communities. They work closely with police stations and courts and in companies and government departments. They provide counselling in person, via the telephone and online.Biyela said they deal with a range of things, from minor things such as being called derogatory names as a child, to issues of gang rape. “If it’s important to you, it is important to us, so we are here to give you all the support you need so that you can heal,” she said. Lifeline also promotes emotional wellness for individuals and communities through community dialogues, skills development, economic strengthening, networking and partnership within the private and public sectors.