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Why we can't 'fight' violence

25th February 2013

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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The murder of Reeva Steenkamp, following only two weeks after the brutal gang rape and murder of Anene Booysen, will almost certainly give rise to a clamour of questions about South Africans’ ‘moral decay’ and apparent penchant for violence. It will also lead to calls for harsher punishment for rapists and the perpetrators of gender-based violence.

While these two cases give us a chance to vent our anger, fear and frustration about the high level of violent crime, and particularly crimes against women, when looking for solutions we tend to fall back on the familiar calls for the police to do more. President Jacob Zuma already announced during his State of the Nation address last week that crimes against women and children would be prioritised by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, however, there is very little the police or the criminal justice system can do to prevent rape and gender-based violence.


What we know about rape and violence between men and women in intimate relationships paints a depressing picture. But understanding the problem does lead to insight into what we need to do to fix it.

We know from research conducted by the Medical Research Council (MRC) that about a third of Gauteng men have raped, at least once in their lives. The same research tells us that nearly 10% of men in this province have participated in gang rape. We know that unemployed black women in their twenties are more likely than anyone else to be the victim of both rape and gang rape; and they are more likely to be the victim of a rape if they are drunk.


The National Victims of Crime Survey and research by the MRC show that women are very often raped in their own homes, and by people they know, if not their own boyfriend or husband. And, perhaps most troubling, we know that more than half of the women who are murdered in South Africa die at the hands of their partners - not strangers. Meanwhile, young black men are more likely to be the victims of violence, and murder, than anyone else. Knowing that there is a very fine line between victim and perpetrator also leads us towards possible solutions, because it tells us that we cannot only focus on protecting women and girls, but that boys also need to be protected from violence.

If women are most at risk of being raped or murdered by people they either know by sight, or have an intimate relationship with, it means that looking to the police or the criminal justice system for solutions is not going to get us very far. By the time the police arrive or a case comes before the court, it is already too late. It is also simply not feasible to arrest and prosecute up to a third of all South African males.

Research by the MRC tells us that the three main reasons men and boys have given for committing rape are: sexual entitlement (which means they believe that women ‘owe’ them sex); for entertainment when they are bored; or because they are angry (and wish to punish the victim). The MRC’s research found that 62% of boys older than 11 who were surveyed believed that it was okay to force someone to have sex with you. They also found that one-third of boys believed that girls enjoy being raped.

If expressions of outrage, calls to punish perpetrators and political rhetoric, however compelling, are not the solution, then what is?

The difficult truth is that there is no quick fix. No politician can change this, nor can any political party - though they may promise to do so in the hope that it will secure your vote in the next election. Politicians are as much part of the solution as they are part of the problem. So is the media, and so are you.

Politicians are part of the solution in that they set the tone for the national discussion and are role models. What politicians do and say affects the way in which members of society act and respond to situations. For example, it is much easier for an ordinary person to justify an act of corruption if national politicians also have their hands in the till, and are not punished for it. This means that politicians need to model the kinds of attitudes towards gender and violence that we wish to see throughout society. Politicians who call for more policing and harsher punishment in response to violence reinforce the idea that violence is a solution to social problems.

The solution also lies in changing the way we respond to violence – at home, between children, on television and at school. We need children not to see violence at home or at school and provide support to those who do. When children see violence in their homes, experience bullying at school or encounter fights and robberies in the streets outside their homes, they become traumatised, scared and anxious. They may not show those feelings, especially if they are boys who are expected to be tough. The internalisation of these feelings affects the way in which they behave, either making them depressed and unable to cope, or, in some cases, resulting in them behaving violently themselves. Understanding this tells us that children who are exposed to violence need counselling and support. That is as true for boys as it is for girls. Children also need attentive, loving parenting.

We know from a great deal of research nationally and internationally that emotionally distant and inconsistent parenting increases the risk that young children will behave aggressively. This kind of parenting has also has been shown to increase the occurrence of delinquency and substance misuse in older children. Parents who neglect their children also contribute towards this negative cycle.

On the other hand, warm, positive, consistent parenting can improve children’s development in significant ways. Children who are nurtured and loved are much less likely to be the victims or perpetrators of violence later in life. Since many South Africans admit to spanking and beating their children, and many children are exposed to violence, if we wish to break the cycle it is important that parents are helped to work more positively with their children. In the same way teachers need to treat their pupils with respect and care - and expect the same in return.

Parents need to make sure they know where their children are at all times - not only girls but boys too. They need to spend time with their children, talking about what happened during the day. They need to not punish them harshly, and to be fair and attentive.

Changing the high rate of violence and rape starts with how we care for and protect children and requires the involvement of everyone - parents, teachers, politicians, nurses, doctors, social workers and psychologists. Even bus and taxi drivers need to watch that bullying does not take place on the bus on the way to school and back home; and need to have somewhere to report if it does. We need to start changing our systems from focusing on how to punish crime, to preventing it from happening.

Written by Chandre Gould, Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria


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