Don’t call me a ‘women’

….. if it means you think I’m weak, a sexual object or your punching bag

Violence against women continues to increase and the acts of violence continue to shock readers on media reports. Dare we say, the violence has become more brutal. Violence against women has been recognised as an international public health and human rights issue[1]. With prevention programs, awareness campaigns and various intervention strategies having been implemented for years. Why do we still see an increase in GBV and why is the violence so brutal, so demeaning?

This got me thinking about men and women and our relationship to each other as social beings. And I wondered how do men who violate women perceive women? This took me back to my sociology classes in which we learnt about concepts such as socialisation, briefly, defined as the process whereby we learn to be a person in our societies and of course this links to gender roles and how we are taught to be as male and female. One has to note that this process of socialisation and the teaching of these roles takes place through various institutions such as the family system, educational institutions, cultural and religious institutions etc. Going back into history and exploring the foundations of this system and how they were set up, the power structures that formed them come into focus, as we note that the power structures consisted mostly of men and so primarily the first learning’s so to say was dominated by a patriarchal underpinning. Patriarchy is defined as a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women[2].

This system gave birth to gender norms and stereotypes, embedding these norms through the process of socialisation, in which women and men were perceived in a certain way and certain labels become associated with what it is to be women and men. Commonly women were perceived as weak, vulnerable, sexual objects so marital rape is not possible, nurturers, whose sole responsibility is taking care of the children etc and men were perceived as the providers (hunter/gatherers), physically stronger than women, alpha males, head of the household, men don’t cry, strong etc. Looking at these descriptions we see gender roles and placements for women and men in society. And this discourse/descriptions of men and women has been passed down and entrenched in our social and individual psyche. As evolved as we are, or think we are, we find ourselves at points in our life, going back to a default position. Acting on that default position, can be dependent on exposure to risk factors and protective factors, as well as being in the have or have not bracket of society.

Fast forwarding to the present, we acknowledge and are grateful for the various developments in women’s rights, gender equality movements, feminists movements which have delved into the deconstruction of gender discourse, highlighting the patriarchal underpinnings of our society that form the foundation of socialisation processes. These movements have contributed to redefining women as competent, equal, powerful and pretty much that women and men can stand along side each other and see each other as equals.

However, GBV stats is telling us something else. GBV is a “general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between […] genders, within the context of a specific society”[3]

This definition and GBV stats speaks to the reality of an unequal society that we continue to live in. One of the contributing factors to GBV is poverty and reports have spoken about the loss of employment by men impacting on GBV numbers increasing since the lockdown and COVID19[4]. I read another article that spoke about a loving father and husband who become abusive following the lost of his job[5]. As any person who has lost a job and now faces financial struggles and uncertainty and who is a provider for the family, I can understand the frustration, feelings of despair, stress and really an overwhelming anxiety and fear as I look at my children and wonder how will I take care of them. The part that I feel needs some getting into, is how that person then decides to take this anger, frustration, anxiety and fear out, specifically on a women or on children? And the thought that comes to mind is that women and children are perceived as weak and vulnerable in society, the same society which has in turn socialized this individual. The emotions inside, which are overwhelming, and dare I say ‘un-manly’ are in a way perhaps perceived as vulnerable and weak and thus suppressed and a more manly expression reveals itself through anger and through violence. I envision that to combat the vulnerability felt, the women who is perceived to be weak and vulnerable and incapable becomes a external representation of his internal self, becomes the object of violence, who is then beaten and abused, as an act of defeating his own internal vulnerable self. Through violence he enacts his power and regains a sense of power as his victims now fear him, can be controlled by him. And intra-psychically, it is the victim in him that is redeemed and empowered again.

The challenge I feel and what speaks to the brutality of GBV deaths that we have seen in recent years. Is that women are no longer only the nurturers, awaiting the provider, but have themselves become providers, empowered by society over the years. This in turn is threatening to the male gender socialised being. Beating you, abusing you, is not enough, as a employed women, who does not rely on her male counterpart has options available to her, has power that she too can enact. I assume this further angers the parts of the male who needs to dominate her, especially when the world has dominated him. In this im referring to high rates of unemployment amongst men, womens positions in employment circles. He cannot simply dominate and beat her down to regain power and deny his vulnerability, as she may not be in need of him, can leave him and this exacerbates his internal vulnerability and so he has to annihilate her, in turn, it is a representation of annihilating the vulnerable, weak parts of himself. With her death, it is symbolically gone.

The current climate of high unemployment, women empowerment and the redefining of women as competent, possessing agency, able and entitled is shifting the narrative previously layed down by the patriarchal forefathers and from what I reflected on above, would mean an escalation in GBV, as we are currently seeing in SA. The impact of this on women, men and future generations of our society is concerning. So what can be done?

For one, more can be done. A multi-layered response is needed, incorporating a lens that is bio-psychosocial, legal, economic and historical in nature. Institutional reform is needed, as systems reconvene and dissect their contribution to the state of GBV, gender norms and stereotypes and work towards providing systems that are sources of support and rehabilitation not only for the survivor but the perpetrator too. Not having these systems play out their own biases, contribute to the stigma, victim blaming and silencing-it’s a domestic issue Sisi, go home and sort it out. No, it’s a me, you, it’s a societal issue.

An increase in financial and human resources is needed to intervene and case manage beyond arrests being made, beyond women being placed in shelters for safety. Acknowledgement that there is no quick fix. Long term interventions are costly but they are an investment to building a society that we can live in, ideally, free of violence. A key part for me is the awareness that patriarchy and systems of old and their ideologies were filtered down into society and we see the remnants of that till today, undoing this, is our challenge and biggest battle. What we have learnt, we can unlearn and we can re-learn a new way of being as women and men, equal entities in society, both strong, both vulnerable, both weak, both empowered.

Written by Sumaiya Mohamed

Senior Psychosocial Trauma Professional at The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR)

[1] Giovetti, O. ‘3 Causes of Gender Based Violence.’ March, 5, 2019.

[2] Sultana, A. ‘Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination: A Theoretical Analysis’, June 2010-June 2011, The Arts Faculty Journal.

[3] Bloom, Shelah S. 2008. “Violence Against Women and Girls: A Compendium of Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators.” Carolina Population Center, MEASURE Evaluation, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

[4] Lefafa, N. (2020). ‘Covid-19 lockdown provides ‘perfect storm’ for SA’s GBV crisis’, Health-e-news.

[5] Giovetti, O. ‘3 Causes of Gender Based Violence.’ March, 5, 2019.

Published by CSVR Trauma Clinic

This blog represents thoughts of therapist working within the CSVR Trauma Clinic. The focus is on understanding the drivers and impact of violence on individuals, families and communities to work towards violence prevention and the building of peaceful societies

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