Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV
Picture: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV

Up to 70% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Adding to this, the World Bank Social Development report on violence against women states that as much as 38% of femicide globally is committed by an intimate partner. In SA, a woman is murdered every three hours, and 51% of SA women have experienced violence at the hands of someone they are in a relationship with.

In the war against gender-based violence it’s easy to place blame and burden for change firmly at the feet of men as they are the predominant face and perpetrator. However, when you dig deeper into the way society has and continues to operate you will uncover an uncomfortable truth — that in many instances women are as guilty as men in failing to support the victim.

Though raging like a wildfire, the issue of gender-based violence is an ill that has plagued matrimonial homes since time immemorial. It is a well-known, but mostly unspoken, secret only ever shared when alcohol lowers the emotional barriers or as a result of subsequent death.

In African culture, marriage is a union of two families and historically, when a couple faced challenges they could not resolve, the wider family was summoned. Representatives from both families held meetings where men (and sometimes women) would be hauled over the coals and admonished for the mistreatment of their spouse and encouraged to do better. The victim would sit demurely, head hung low with an air of subdued triumph or frustrated defeat, depending on how long the charade had been going on.

At the end of the proceedings, families, consisting of men and women, would send the couple off with warnings not to repeat the offence. And that’s where the problem lies. Both victim and abuser would be sent off back to the scene of the crime for the cycle to repeat itself. The reasons behind this are not only varied but so ingrained in the psyche of human behaviour that it is deemed par for the course.

in her book Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi  gives mothers this advice for their daughters: “Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make it clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to.” This advice would be easy to follow if not for that as a woman, the institute of marriage is the very thing you are taught to aspire to.

From the minute puberty hits, mothers and aunts unite about a common cause — making sure you are ready to be a muroora/makoti/bride. What you should and shouldn’t do. How you need to conduct yourself to be perceived as suitable and worthy of the gift of a man and a marriage proposal. Any bad behaviour is reprimanded with threats of either never finding a man to marry you, or being returned from your in-laws and embarrassing the entire family and neighbourhood. At your hen-do the main topic is how to please and keep your man.

Yes, parents will be delighted when you get your degree and nab that top post in corporate, but all this will pale in comparison to getting hitched. So ingrained is this train of thought that when trouble comes, no-one wants to be seen to be losing their long-awaited prize of being a Mrs, or judged for failing to hold on to the most coveted and aspired to accolade. So, when we are sent back, we stay ...

Without the support of loved ones, separation is a process too scary to contemplate and the stigma of divorce can be debilitating. The minute you allude to being unhappy or wanting to leave, it’s not your state of mind that is of primary concern. It’s how the rest of the family will respond to the news, and how their reputational standing will change with their friends, the neighbourhood, Mothers Union/Manyano and the wider community as a result.

The need to please society and present a well-rounded girl child that has the wherewithal and tenacity to hold on to her “achievement” through thick and thin is strong — and sometimes more pressing than our need to see our children protected.

We are told by our mothers and aunts that what we are experiencing is nothing new and being a woman means to be strong and dignified in the face of any adversity and encouraged to return and stay the course. We are taught that only weak and flighty women leave when trouble comes. And when we take their advice, we are applauded for our “strength and maturity”, as they ignore the swollen eyes, diminishing light, aching heart and Revlon covered bruises. So, when we are sent back, we stay ...

Societal pressure is the unknown powerful force that has us hitting the gym at 5am and knowing what Paleo, Atkins, Military and Banting means. It’s cute when it’s following the crowd to better health and self-care, but not so much when it is forcing you stay in an abusive relationship for the sake of being part of the marrieds. We have all watched the movie. Where the single person is relegated to the singles table at a wedding, or playing waitress and taking orders for drinks and snacks at your friends’ baby-shower because you are the only one without a child.

Being single is an indictment, and not being married negates all your accomplishments thus far. When a woman finally gets that pass into the revered club, she holds on tight. And when that situation turns toxic memories of the old days, of being ashamedly single surface and shame sets in. So, when we are sent back, we stay. And over time we normalise and downplay the abuse. Until leaving is no longer an option. And the vow “until death do us part” is fulfilled.

For gender-based violence to be eradicated a lot of work needs to be done to change the actions, mindset and beliefs of men in relation to women, that indeed is first and foremost.

But the mindset of women too needs to be adjusted. Until we, as women, recognise the role we play in perpetuating the menace that is patriarchy, the cycle will continue.

Until we redefine to ourselves and our daughters what an achievement really is and what it really means to be a strong woman, mothers will keep sending daughters back and we will continue to bury our beloved sisters, killed at the hands of those they loved and trusted.         

Nyakudya, an accredited women's life coach and counsellor, writer and speaker, founded early education centres for underprivileged children in Johannesburg and is now working with iThemba Rape and Support in Johannesburg. She was one of 50 women entrepreneurs in Standard Bank’s #EntrepreneurialSpirit Winning Women programme in partnership with GIBS

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