Once is Enough

Shocking news rocked the music industry this week when Chris Brown was arrested for allegedly beating up his girlfriend Rihanna.

According to BANG Showbiz, Rihanna was left with ‘horrific’ injuries after an argument with Chris on Sunday.

But in South Africa, domestic abuse is rampant. The situation is so dire, the People Opposing Women Abuse (Powa) websites states that one in four women are in an abusive relationship and a woman is killed every six days by her intimate male partner.

Are you or your friends at risk of domestic abuse? What can you do about it?

Abuse can be emotional, mental, physical or financial (controlling your spending). It usually begins slowly, says Delphine Serumaga, executive director of Powa. Typically, the abuser criticises, undermines and demeans you, making you feel unworthy – but, in an attempt to bind you to him, still tells you he loves you. Then he starts telling you what you can or can’t do, where you can or can’t go and what you can or can’t wear. With physical abuse, the next level of aggression is punching walls – and before you know it he’s hitting you.

Even before embarking on a relationship, beware a man who has unpredictable mood swings, abuses drink or drugs (especially if these make him violent), pressures you into committing to a relationship early, checks up on you or insists on making all the decisions. ‘Another red flag is finding yourself constantly excusing him – telling people he’s just having a bad day,’ says Fatima Bayat, executive director of the Advice Desk for the Abused.

You can ask him to change his controlling behaviour, but stick around only if he makes a genuine attempt, such as going for counselling, and if the abuse stops. ‘Watch out for the honeymoon phase, when he apologises and makes up with you, only to start the cycle again later,’ says Serumaga.

And if the abuse gets physical, it’s time to leave. If he hits you once, or threatens to, get out. ‘Few women do this,’ says Bayat. ‘They think he’ll change. But if you stay, the abuse will continue and invariably escalate.’

What prompts men to behave like this towards women? And why the high incidence of women killed in South Africa? According to Dr Usha Roopnarain, a researcher with a doctorate in women and politics, abuse is rooted in the perception that masculinity is characterised by dominance and assertiveness and femininity by passivity, dependence, irrationality, emotionality and seductiveness. Sadly, this allows violence against women to be seen by many as ‘an inevitable consequence of gender differences’ – a kind of natural male response to female provocation.

But such thinking won’t wash in modern relationships. Equally unacceptable, says Serumaga, are the various other justifications commonly offered by abusers – sad childhoods, stressed lives, alcohol or drugs. These are listed alongside ‘suffering under apartheid’ and ‘being oppressed because he is poor’ as ‘excuses’ on the Powa website. ‘We all experience trauma, stress, anger and fear, but an abusive man chooses to abuse as a way of dealing with his pain or problems,’ it says. ‘He can control his violence, but he chooses to control his woman instead. Only he can make it stop.’

Watch out for signs: clothes designed to conceal (long sleeves, sunglasses, polo necks), cutting ties with family and friends, frequent injuries with unlikely explanations, low self-esteem, secrecy, nervousness, depression and substance abuse.

Broach the issue immediately but calmly. Quietly raise the topic of abuse, perhaps linked to a news item, or just ask how she’s really feeling. Tell her you’re worried about her. Don’t be confrontational or prescriptive.

Listen without being judgemental. Let her confide at her own pace. Show her you take her fears seriously, and never blame her or make excuses for her partner. Assure her it isn’t her fault, stresses Powa. Abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser. And it’s hard to leave an abuser.

Leave the decision to her. She needs to believe in her ability to make them. Don’t try to save her.

Help her see her strengths and build her confidence.

Tell her you believe in her courage and ability to survive – she’s already made it this far.

Help her break her isolation. Tell her about support organisations that can provide help in strict confidence.

Help her to see the danger. Never minimise threats made by the abuser. Powa reports that most women murdered by their partners are killed when they leave or soon after.

Help her to devise a plan. Powa suggests she arranges a signal with you or a neighbour, using her phone or lights, indicating she needs help. She should hide a bag with her ID and other important documents, money, keys and a few clothes, and take this with her in an emergency. She should also take any children with her when she leaves – this helps with custody later.

Honour your offers. If you say she can call you or stay with you at any time, be sure that you can follow through.

Powa  01…
Stop Gender Violence 0800 1450 150
Life Line  08…
Advice Desk for the Abused  03…
Famsa  01…;  02…;  03…
Family Life Centre  01…