Updated: Jun 17
Being female is the largest contributing risk factor to being abused in a heterosexual relationship. Which is why 35% of all murders of women globally are reported to be committed by an intimate partner in comparison, only about 5% of all murders of men are committed by an intimate partner (World Health Organization, 2012). This demands that I question the systems and that may have brought us to this point. What is it that has made our very being a risk factor? It leads me to a controversial question that is commonly asked by victims of abuse. Is it really us, is it me? Would we, like our male counterparts, be at a lower risk of being abused if we were as physically strong or stronger than them? Or is it a system thing?
Intimate partner violence is a manifestation of gender based violence in romantic relationships. Its presence in a relationship that is based on love and other warm and fuzzy feelings is a cause for concern. It shows the depth and the seriousness of this issue. Abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or economical. It also extends to harassment and stalking.
Historically, in most societies around the world, gender-based violence was acceptable. But things have change, family, friends and people in general now encourage women to leave abusive relationships. Around the globe local and grassroots organizations (some working secretly), are equipped to rescue women who cannot leave without help. Programmes such as #16daysOfActivism raise awareness of the scourge of gender based violence. Children are taught about abuse at school. A great number of magazine and newspaper articles have been written on this issue and its dangers. Governments and unions release gruesome statistics and reflect on these issues annually. But a significant number of women stay in abusive relationships despite these efforts. Some attempt to leave, but find themselves back with their abusive partners. This cycle or choice often exhausts the woman’s support structure, because we fail to understand why. Eventually, she becomes more isolated, which makes her easier to abuse over time. According to Giannetakis (2017) domestic violence and other forms of intimate partner violence was a topic of little discussion in public venues until late in the 20th century. It was a matter considered to be private and was therefore, overlooked by authorities and family. Romantic relationships are a private matter. We cannot deny that people have the right to choose their partners without the interference of family or the public. And that they have the autonomy to leave and go back to any of their relationships as they please.
Abusive relationships are complex in nature. The participants are lovers, however the abuse introduces a dynamic that demands that society be involved. Everyone has the right to dignity, security: to be free from violence in public and spaces. Abusive behaviour infringes on these rights and breaks the law, therefore it is criminal behaviour. So, the dynamic becomes that of victim and offender, because a criminal offence is inflicted on another person. Lawfully, the relationship the offender has with the victim should not be a mitigating factor to the consequences they will receive. Society must adopt the same understanding. Further, we need to discuss and acknowledge the reasons why women stay in abusive relationships so we can give better support to the victims of abuse around us.
"Abusive behaviour infringes on these rights and breaks the law, therefore it is criminal behaviour."
First we will have make and attempt towards understanding the nature of abusive intimate relationships. It is clear to us all that the concept is a paradox and may cause confusion. This is the same confusion a woman in an abusive relationship feels. Especially if the abusive partner displays affection and abrupt episodes of abuse. The confusion is exacerbated by an apology that often seems sincere and leads to forgiveness and strengthened love until the next offence. There are stories of partners who are only abusive when drunk. In that case, the couple will blame alcohol for the abuse. The victim does this because she loves her partner and is attached to him. Therefore denial leads her to believe that her partner is not abusive, , it is the alcohol that makes him abusive. Some abusive relationships don’t have periods of confusion and are distinguished by abuse without regret or apologies. Instead the female is maltreated every time she comes in contact with her partner. When they don’t leave their relationships it is because they fear that their partner might kill them or because of distrust of the police. Sometimes women stay in abusive relationships in the hope that the non-abusive partner they once knew will re-emerge. Abusive relationships leave women with a low self-esteem, making it harder for her to leave, she might even have had her idea of self-worth broken down, to the extent that she cannot imagine life without her “strong” and “competent” man.
We cannot discuss abuse without looking at how patriarchy fuels this issue. The patriarchal system socialises women to be helpless, complying, passive and dependent while men are socialised to be competent, rational, arrogant and strong (Barkhuizen, 2004). The combination of these beliefs is detrimental for women. Passive people do not report abuse. Helpless people do not report abuse. It is hard for dependent people to leave abusive relationships. Patriarchy socialises women to be incapable of leaving abusive relationships. So, we should celebrate the woman who leaves because she has done so within a system that would have her stay. Beyond socialising women to be dependent, patriarchy makes it hard for women to move ahead and occupy positions of power and wealth. We meet roadblocks in our pursuit of independence. Therefore, women remain financially dependent on the partners and need them to survive, especially if they have children.
Culture and religion are probably the most binding factors to why women stay in abusive relationships especially abusive marriages. They both play a major role in the existence and sustenance of patriarchy. They also discourage divorce and when it is allowed, the man is the one who has the autonomy to leave his wife. So, women remain passive and helpless, because it is unacceptable that they file for divorce. Culture and religion have further attached a status to relationships/marriage and stigma to divorce. Women would rather suffer in silence than be relegated to being an object of mockery. She is the one who should nurture her family, divorce communicates failure to society. It would also rob her children of a two parent household, which has been drilled into her head as a responsibility she must shoulder. So, she stays in an abusive relationship, oftentimes blind to the fact that her relationship is toxic to her children.
Our physical strength definitely makes us vulnerable to violence, but it is not us. We are not the problem. The problem lies in the depths of a society structured to beat down the weak and reward the strong. We would not experience violence if a culture of violence did not exist, if our society was not built on exploiting and abusing those who are vulnerable. Also, women would not remain in abusive relationships if society valued them from the time they are born, instead of convincing them they are passive their whole lives only to expect them to leave the day they are abused.
I encourage all women who are in abusive relationships to leave. I encourage them to silence the voice of patriarchy. You are not passive, you are not inherently dependent. Your physical strength does not limit your emotional strength. You are strong, capable of independence, competent, and rational.
BARKHUIZEN , M., 2004. Professional Women As Victims Of Emotional Abuse Within Marriage Or Cohabiting Relationships.
Facio, A. et al., 2013. Feminist Movement Builder’s Dictionary.
World Health Organisation, 2012. Understanding and Addressing Violence Against Women, s.l.: s.n.