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September 13, 2008

Battered Women – South Africa’s Shame

I came across this article I wrote for Living Magazine in 1996 and thought I’d share it. I think it is still as true today as it was in 1996.

Battered Women – South Africa’s Shame

He smashed her head against the wall until she lapsed into unconsciousness. A small tear between her vagina and anus caused her to bleed to death. The court could not prove that beyond reasonable doubt that he had sexually molested her with a blunt object. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. This brutal and final act sounds more suited to the movie Silence of the Lambs. This is not fiction, and the murder was not committed by a serial killer like Dr Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter, but by a loving husband. This incident was related by a court reporter. Ironically, the victim of this brutal murder had probably been forced to seek the protection of her husband from men like Dr Hannibal Lecter.

Women are more likely to be violently assaulted in marriage

Lloyd Vogelman, in his book The Sexual Face of Violence, cites a chapter from Hill (1982): The pervasive fear of violence and violence itself, has the effect of driving women to seek protection from men, the very people who commit violence against them. Husbands and boyfriends are seen as protectors of women from potential violence of unknown men. Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be violently assaulted in marriage, and by men known to them.” Although most domestic violence does not end in death, the victim of this violence very often wishes she were dead. Belinda (36) ended up in hospital after taking an overdose of sleeping tablets to end her misery and her life. As a result of the overdose she suffered a cardiac arrest and almost died. She was in shock from loss of blood from a ruptured kidney – the result of a brutal kick. Her swollen face and body were a mass of cuts and bruises. After her husband left her lying in a pool of blood, Belinda said: “All I remember was crawling to the bathroom trailing blood; opening the medicine cabinet and taking pills so that I could finally get peace.”

Fortunately for Belinda, a servant found her and called an ambulance. Her bruises – worn like badges of shame – mapped out the agony she went through. Fresh black and blue bruises were added to the older, yellow bruises, which were testament to the regular beatings she had to endure. The doctors could predict with alarming accuracy how many beatings she received in the two months prior to her ending up in hospital.

Belinda’s story of abuse started 18 years ago, less than a year into her marriage when she was eight months pregnant, with her son.

Her story is not unique. In fact, it is an all-too-common occurrence in violence- riddled South Africa. Vogelman said: “A ‘war culture’ dominates contemporary South Africa… which accepts violence as a legitimate solution to conflict.

Ever-increasing violence doesn’t seem to shock us anymore

The recent violence we have been experiencing tends to confirm Vogelman’s observation. We are a society so used to violence – be it violence in trains, at political gatherings or funeral processions, the murder of farmers, revenge attacks or rape (more than a thousand women are sexually assaulted daily) – that the ever- increasing violence doesn’t seem to shock us any more. We have become blasé and have learned to live with this culture of violence.

According to South African Police public relations office in Pretoria, there are no figures on how many women are assaulted in domestic violence incidents. One of the reasons for this is that any assault – be it domestic violence or street violence – is classified under a general heading: assault.

In 1990, rape Crisis (Cape Town), claimed that one in every six women is subjected to violence. And, according to the group, Co-ordinated Action for Battered Women, eight out of every 10 cases that social workers deal with reveal that the women has been abused.

Johannesburg-based POWA (People Opposing Women Abuse), received 124 phone calls from women that had been abused either by their husbands or partners between January to March 1992.

Violence on women by their partners – like rape – does not recognise colour, creed, religion or social class.

According to Heather Regenass, National Marketing Manager of Nicro (National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders), violence on women by their partners is across-the-board. “The more affluent you are, the more you are able to hide your secret.”

In recently published articles, former Miss South Africa, Michelle Bruce (now Michelle Stern), alleged that she was beaten up by her former fiancé, David van der Mewed. Rumour has it that another former Miss South Africa had a permanent room booked at the Sandton Clinic for when her husband assaulted her.

It is not easy to spot a “women abuser”. But, two things are certain: men who abuse their partners invariably have poor self-esteem, and feel the need to control and dominate in one way or another. They are often very charming and are able to make their partners feel really good.

Anything can send him into a violent rage

A common misconception is that a “women abuser” is also an abuser of alcohol. An abuser does not need a drink to hit a woman: anything can send him into a violent rage-the tea is cold, his food is not to his liking or he simply had a bad day at work. In his mind, these and any one of a million reasons are ample justification to abuse “his women”.

Civil engineer Joan (42) who married six and a half years ago, started being physically abused three years into her marriage. Prior to that, she suffered emotional abuse which finally pushed her to the edge of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

Her husband’s continual emotional and verbal abuse chipped away at her values until, tier by tier, her self-confidence collapsed.

Abuse need not be physical in nature to be classified as abuse. A women very often is put under severe strain emotionally-cases have been recorded where husbands lock their wives up at home until they come back from work; and in another instance, a husband called his wife every half hour to ensure that she was at home; during an argument, the partner can increase speed whilst driving, clean his gun or sharpen a knife: this constitutes emotional abuse. In most instances, emotional and verbal abuse i.e. as he is hitting the women, the man calls her derogatory names like “slut”, “whore”, “bitch” “worthless wife and mother” and the like.

It was only after she persuaded her husband to see a marriage guidance counsellor with her, whom Joan realised her values were acceptable – but he found her values abhorrent because they weren’t the same as his. After much counselling, Joan began to stand up for herself. “I no longer allowed him to browbeat me verbally.

Because he lost his hold, and ultimately his control over her, he stepped up his abuse into a higher gear.

On October 10, 1988, a month before he instituted divorce proceedings, the beatings started,” said Joan. Although he continued to abuse her, she managed to share the communal home with him for another six months.

“In the end I used to go to the police two to three times a week. I realised I couldn’t leave the home because my children were there. I had to brave the situation and go back, but because I was petrified of him, I would ask them (the Police) to escort me home.

“When we got to my home he would pretend to be asleep and as soon as the police left, the assault and terror would start again. If he happened to be awake, he would tell the police that I was a whore, a slut and rubbish. The police did and said nothing…”

Police are reluctant to respond to calls of domestic violence

Regenass said: “It is our experience that the police are reluctant to respond to calls of domestic violence, and if you are not married, they are even less willing to respond. Very often when they do respond, they’ll tell the wife to be a good girl and tell the husband to watch it, climb into their vehicle and drive off. Traditionally, the police have removed themselves from familial problems. They suggest you call your church minister or somebody else.”

A possible reason for the hesitance of the police to respond to domestic violence is that they are often powerless. If, as is the norm, a battered woman refuses to lay charges against her partner, there is nothing the police can legally do about it.

Battered women often drop assault charges against their partners, because they fear the retribution they will face afterwards. They literally fear for their and their children’s lives.

Belinda feared she would never see her children again if she didn’t drop the assault charge against her husband: “Before we were to go to court he came up to me and said that if I didn’t withdraw the charge, he would take both kids and get on a plane and that would be the last that I saw of them. I dropped the charges.

“Little did I know that he couldn’t do that, but my self-esteem was so low that I believed everything he said. He could tell me a tablecloth was pink when it was black, and I would believe him, she said,” she said.

According to Regenass, abusive men go on “beating binges”. Abused women actually become sensitive to this and know exactly when it is going to happen.

Joan said that she developed a “sixth sense”, and knew when her husband was going to beat her. Belinda’s husband got a “glint” in his eye just before he raised his hand to her.

Joan claims that her husband only hit her in front of the children (who were then five and two years old) – too young to testify in court. “My husband is a bully and a coward.”

As Belinda also relates: “Towards the end, as my kids got older, his method of beating changed. He would pull me into a cupboard or beat me up behind closed doors. I think he became scared of our son who had just turned 15.”

After six months of abuse, Joan finally moved out of the communal home. “This was when my nightmare really started,” she said.

Her husband started spying on her. On a number of occasions he ambushed her in the corridor of her northern suburb flat complex. He phoned her employees and tried to get her fired. Although she has no proof, she is positive that he smashed the windscreen of her car, and on another occasion broke keys in her car’s locks.

He had access to Joan through the children-either when he dropped them at her home or when he came to pick them up. On these occasions, as she opened the door to let the children in, he forced his way into her flat and assaulted her. “He once fisted me when I had the baby in my arms-thank God my child was not hurt.

Joan was eventually forced to drop and collect her children outside her neighbourhood police station so that he wouldn’t assault her. Even this measure didn’t always act as a deterrent: “He leant in through the car window and clouted me, even though the uniformed policemen stood on the other side of the road.” She has to physically get out of the car in full view of the police to stop him from harming her.

For Mandy (25), an accountant, the emotional abuse was more severe than the bloody noses and bruises she suffered at the fists of her boyfriend.

“He regularly called me a bitch and slut-he made me feel like nothing. His possessiveness drove me out of my mind.”

I was only allowed to go to aerobics if I wore a tracksuit pants and T-shirt-a leotard was an offence punishable by beating.” Similarly, when she got dressed for work, he used to taunt her by saying she was dressing up for the men at work and he would ask her who she was meeting for lunch.

“He even checked if I was wearing a petticoat under my dress. I eventually resorted to wearing pants.”

Her husband’s jealousy played a big part in Belinda’s life: “Because he was insanely jealous, I was dead scared to look reasonable. I let myself go and became extremely fat. I felt that if I got huge, he wouldn’t be able to accuse me of flirting.”

He ripped the dress from my body

Mandy said:” I was rather proud of a dress I had made for a friend’s wedding when I was 20.”Two years later her boyfriend asked her to put the dress on so that he could see what she looked like on the night of the wedding. “All I remember was him shouting that I looked like a slut and no wonder guys wanted to get into me – then he ripped the dress from my body.”

Mandy’s boyfriend sometimes slapped her around whilst they were driving. “For those few seconds I could have killed myself out of pure desperation by flinging myself out of the moving car. I opened the car door more than once.”

The question that begs to be asked of these women, and many thousands like them, is that, “if it was so bad, why they didn’t get out sooner?”

Regenass explains that it is not as simple as that.

“A man who emotionally and physically abuses a women takes away her self-esteem and her self-worth.”

In most cases she is not allowed to have friends (Belinda, Joan and Mandy all agree) and therefore she has no support group.

“Fear of the husband often forces her to stay in a destructive marriage because he threatens to kill either her, or the children, or both.

“Another factor forcing the women to stay is the lack of financial assistance. I know of many women living in the so-called affluent areas of Sandton and Bryanston who don’t have two cents to rub together. Very often their husbands don’t allow them to have their own bank accounts or credit cards (this is another way for him to control them). So even if they wanted to book into a hotel for the night, they would not have the means to do so.”

They were financial prisoners

Both Belinda and Joan were not allowed to work. This not only kept them under watchful eyes, but kept them “financial prisoners” as well. In some instances, when the wife is allowed to work, she has to pay her salary into her husband’s bank account.

Belinda’s husband cut all financial aid to her-and even as this article goes to print she is being forced give up her cottage in Sunninghill because she can’t afford to pay the R500 rent each month. “He has ruined me financially.”

Joan said that when she left her husband she only had R5000 on her credit card, of which she had to spend a R1000 on clothes because she was never allowed to buy decent clothes while with him.

“Another reason women stay with men who abuse them is because they are invariably very charming and are very good at making up after a violent episode.

They make the women feel that it’s OK, it’s not a problem, and that he actually loves her and that is why he does it,” said Regenass.

Mandy’s boyfriend used to say: “Sure I hit you, but there’s nobody out there who will treat you as well as I do.”

And here’s the rub: most abused women admit that when their partner is not hitting them and when they are not fighting, and then he is a marvelous man and a wonderful father.

“He really is super. If you met him, you’d get on well with him, anyone would, “said Mandy.

One woman’s husband beat her so badly that she had to have her spleen removed, but still she looked forward to the “honeymoon” period where he was contrite and attended to her every whim. When she came out of hospital he would take her out to dinner, buy her presents (he bought her a car once), and their sex life improved.

Until the next violent episode. In her mind the abuse she took built up “credit”. She felt that if she could just survive another beating, the credit-the “honeymoon”-would be worth it. In this instance the woman was actually colluding with her husband. It took many months of counselling for her to realise that by accepting his gifts, she was just as guilty as he was.

A woman who leaves an abusive relationship too soon … returns

According to Regenass, a woman who leaves an abusive relationship too soon very often returns to that same relationship because she feels guilty; she feels she hasn’t done enough to save the relationship. “When a woman does finally decide to leave, it must be a full stop at the end of the sentence, rather than a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence.”

“If the man is willing to tackle his problem head-on, then the relationship can be saved.”

But Regenass concedes that in the majority of cases, if the man’s abusive behaviour is not nipped in the bud, the relationship can’t be saved.

“The man has to admit that he has a problem before the couple can even start to work it out. He must accompany his wife or girlfriend to a marriage guidance counsellor. It is imperative that he be involved. Any attempt to save the relationship without his participation is doomed to failure. But, in my experience, very few men actually think they have a problem. They feel it is the woman’s fault that they are beating her,” Regenass said.

Another factor, and possibly the key factor that keeps a woman tied to a man who abuses her, is society’s acceptance of abuse as a “way of life”. It gives a man carte blanche in a relationship.

One hears comments like: “You must have done something really bad for him to have hit you.” Or, the man says:” See how she pushes me-what am I supposed to do? It’s her, she’s pushing me.”

Society forgets that a man need never raise his hand to a woman; he can always walk away.

A number of South Africa’s black cultures argue that it is the traditional right of the husband do discipline his wife. This is mirrored in comments like:” I need to keep her in line every now and then.” Many “Westernised” South Africans subscribe to this philosophy.

In Vogelman’s The Sexual Face of Violence, (Dobash and Dobash) he states that because men have been given the responsibility of controlling women, physical violence becomes a “legitimate” means to secure such control.

Women that have been abused talk about “secondary victimisation”. Not only is she hurt by her partner, but by other parties including the church, parents, co-workers and the like.

According to Regenass, in one instance, both parents and in-laws told the wife that her husband had the right to beat her because she didn’t act like “a good Christian wife”.

I used to hit her so many times I forgot about it

By dialling an 087 number, for R2.20 a minute, one can hear Jimmy “I like violence” Abbot, ex-boxer, ex-wrestler and sometime debt collector, confirm the role of the church when he tells you why he beats his wife and father. “I used to hit her so many times; I forgot about it.” A questioner asks:” And she still stayed with you?” Abott replies: “Oh yes, she believed in the Lord and she believed the Lord will change me one day.” The acceptance that violence against women is a “fact of life” has even penetrated our judicial system.

Regenass cites an example where a woman got her husband to court on assault charges, only to be told by the magistrate:” There’s a bench outside. Don’t the two of you want to go and sort your differences out over there?”

Joan had a similar experience when she brought her husband to court on charges of assault. He was let off because it wasn’t proved conclusively that she didn’t antagonise him.

Regenass emphasised that before a woman gets out of an abusive relationship, she must have explored every possible angle to have saved the relationship.

Only once she has reconcile herself to the fact that there is absolutely no hope of saving the relationship, can she start thinking about getting out.

There are a number of things an abused woman can do to prepare herself for the day she will finally leave the relationship.

First, when she is abused she must tell someone she can trust. Tell her friends, make it public-this can act as a deterrent. Her friends should also be able to confirm that being abused is not “normal” in a relationship.

She must start building up her independence and her self-confidence.

She must try to develop in her work sphere so that she can start feeling that she is a worthwhile person. If she is not working, she should attempt to persuade her partner that she needs to work. Joan, Mandy and Belinda have all been affected in some way by their experiences.

Joan is back at work and living with her sister. She is still awaiting the outcome of the custody trial. She’s not seeing anyone right now. She does from time to time consult a psychologist.

There’s only one direction to go and that’s up

Mandy is still an accountant. She left her abusive relationship two years ago and is now seeing someone. She appears to be very happy with her new relationship. She has become more independent and is adamant that she never wants anyone to gain control of her life again. She feels that she had enough strength now to stop seeing her psychologist.

After a spell in the Tara psychiatric facility in Johannesburg, Belinda (who is presently unemployed) is down, but definitely not out. She feels comfortable around other men:” I realise that they are not all the same.” Her main concern is for her son who witnessed a lot of the beatings meted out by his father.

She is afraid that he will become an abuser of women, just like his father. A common thread binds these three souls together: even though they have each been through a personal hell, they have a positive outlook on life. “You go so low that there is finally only one direction to go, and that’s up.”

Sales trainer, Jacques de Villiers wrote this article in 1996.

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