Understanding our violent nature

In 2013, South Africa started implementing a strategy based on changing mindsets while promoting partnerships and social inclusion in order to tackle the root causes of gender-based violence.

One of these strategies was the National Crime Prevention Strategy of 1996, which recognised that the causes of violence were deep-rooted, relating to South Africa’s history and socio-economic realities, as well as the dynamics of early relationships.

South Africa’s violent history of oppression and the struggle for liberation from apartheid has left the country with a “culture of violence”, in which violence was seen as a legitimate means of resolving social, political, community and even domestic or family problems.

Additionally many South African socio-cultural practices are still deeply embedded in patriarchy.

There are various kinds of violence against women and children including distorted cultural practices and beliefs regarding the girl child and women; accusations of witchcraft of darker skinned women, Ukuthwala (abduction of girls or women for marriage supported by her family), incest and rape as well as gangsterism and drug abuse. An often neglected or underestimated but most pervasive and devastating cause of violent behaviour and actions, is the fragmented inner world of individuals who perpetrate seemingly senseless acts of violence against vulnerable others.

We all begin life in a family setting completely dependent on caregivers. This is the beginning of an individual’s sense of self in relation to themselves and others.

Babies are born with inborn attachment and in the face of threat of separation and loss, experience overwhelming fear and helplessness. If the attachment figure is available and successful in providing a sense of security, the child’s attachment need becomes fulfilled and internalised as trustworthy, good and wholesome. This is the safe haven function of attachment relationships. These attachment dynamics are not outgrown with childhood but characterise intimate relationships in adulthood.

However, unlike parent-child relationships, adult partners function as attachment figures for one another. Under optimal circumstances, the couple provide safe haven and secure base functions on a reciprocal “as needs” basis.

With the instinct of attachment in mind, the key to understanding violence and aggression is the evolutionary function of anger.

Angry protest is an instinctive biological response to separation from the preferred attachment figure whose physical presence and emotional availability afford the child safety, protection and psycho-biological regulation. The adaptive function of angry protests, including crying, is to increase the intensity of the communication to the lost person with the set goal of achieving reunion. Anger thus serves to maintain vitally important relationships.

Given this, relational violence is understood as the distorted and exaggerated version of potentially functional attachment behaviour – as “attachment gone wrong”. In this sense, violence may be seen as representing the extreme of human instinctive behaviour. Aggression and destructiveness are the result of traumatic disturbance of the infant-caregiver relationship.

Furthermore, it has become clear that family life and child rearing has become marginalised.

This is severely devastating for an individual, family, community and for society at large, as these are all connected, beginning with the baby raised in a loving environment, having internalised this and taking these into his adult relationships and perceptions of self and with others. Or the opposite, where there was assaultive, neglectful or rejecting parental responses, developing a fragmented and distorted sense of self and others.

Any intervention regarding the scourge of violence against women and children needs to also challenge patriarchal mindsets. This needs to include the re-education of boys and girls about their internalised beliefs as to what makes a boy and a girl important or not, superior or inferior and thus unequal.

Often there is a misperception that girls are by nature inferior to boys and can therefore be mistreated, disrespected, used and abused and be at the disposal of boys’ needs, including relational, sexual, educational and financial. With the last two being that girls or women are not supposed to be a threat to boys/men in the field of education, career development and financial status.

There are many stereotypes which perpetuate the belief that girls or women need to be submissive or subservient to boys or men and must always downplay their strengths, intelligence, abilities and talents, especially when in the company of boys/men so as not to threaten their male virility.

These beliefs are often inculcated in childhood already and are often role-played by parental figures and teachers. These may be further exacerbated by the dominant culture and various media portrayals which promulgate women as mainly able to do certain things such as taking up work in the caregiving field or in the “soft” sciences as well as being objectified for the purpose of satisfying the needs of men. On the other hand, many women may believe that in order to succeed in a predominantly male work environment, they need to behave like men, and forego any feminine qualities which may make them appear vulnerable. One of the main reasons that abuse or bullying goes unnoticed is that victims (and onlookers) are silenced and either believe that they should not speak out against perpetrators or are fearful of repercussions when they do speak out.

While the latter can be a deterrent and victims need to be cognisant of this, it should not prevent them from seeking help. Often abuse may begin with being undermined psychologically or being emotionally victimised. Usually the emotional abuse is a precursor to eventual physical abuse and over time may become fatal.

Seek urgent help from police and NGOs who deal with violence against women and children, such as Mosaic in Wynberg or the Saartjie Baartman Centre in Athlone. Taking action and not remaining silent can make a difference of life or death. Mosaic can be contacted on 021 761 7585 or admin@mosaic.org.za and Saartjie Baartman Centre on 021 633 5287.

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at helpmecarin@inl.co.za or WhatsApp message or SMS 082 264 7774.