Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Normalising intimate partner violence among Soweto youth

By Matamela Makongoza, Mzikazi Nduna and Janan Dietrich

One of the greatest challenges facing young people today is intimate partner violence. This is usually perpetrated by young men against their female partners. For instance, three out of 10 adolescent males in the Eastern Cape reported beating or raping their partners, and this type of intimate partner violence is experienced by up to 50% of young people¹.

Research²,³ suggests that young people are exposed to domestic violence at an early age and they normalise violence as a way of resolving conflict later in adulthood (eg Thaler, 2012). In addition, harsh discipline, lack of emotional support and poor parenting throughout childhood affects young people’s social and emotional functioning resulting in violent behaviour². The government also lacks psychologists at schools despite young people being faced with bullying, violence and suicide. A study by Liang et al. (2007) conducted among 5 074 school children in 72 government schools in Cape Town and Durban reveals that bullying is rife.

These numbers speak for themselves. And while statistics are important to help us understand the magnitude of the problem, they do not give us a deeper analysis about why this problem persists. We need to deepen the conversation and widen our understanding from young people’s perspectives. But due to sanctioning of sexual relationships during adolescence, studies of adolescents’ negative experiences in their relationships are few. It is near impossible to find studies that asked young people about their own experiences of violence in sexual relationships. I therefore conducted a study aimed to contribute to this knowledge gap.

Study
Twelve young females and males aged 15 to 20 years old were recruited for the study. Soweto was chosen as a location of interest because of the high incidents of intimate partner violence among adolescents, as evidenced by data collected by Dunkle et al. (2004) in 2001-2002 among 16 to 44 year olds attending antenatal clinics in Soweto.

Young people in this study expressed that their communities are affected by violence and it is very common to see people fight in the streets, taverns, parks and at home.

Lebo* (age 17) mentioned that her boyfriend beat her up and she managed to leave from the abusive situation:

“I have experienced that [smiling, tone of voice little bit down] … with my boyfriend. He was forcing me to have sex with him while I don’t want to, he beat me slapped me … on my face [laughing] … I just put my head down and then I cried a little and then I get off … when I got home is then that he started calling apologising about what he did.”

Matshidiso (age 17)* confirmed that young people have no support when they seek for help as authorities don’t take their problems seriously:

“When we went to the police station for help, the police mentioned that they don’t want to get involved because they are used to these children who come in and open restraining orders for one day and the next day when they are all lovey-dovey with their partners they will come and cancel it.”

It is not easy for young people to leave their abusive relationships because emotions play a big role in their partnership. When they don’t have support they take drastic measures that turn into tragedy. Participants also spoke about drugs and alcohol as problems affecting young people. They reflected on gender power as they talked about abuse and the community’s reluctance to support the victims. Young people with direct and indirect experiences of intimate partner violence then tend to silence their ordeal. I wonder, by not intervening, what are we as a society teaching young people about violence?

Moving forward
We really must understand the difference between the terms intimate partner violence and interpersonal violence, so that the reluctance for support will be minimised. Interpersonal violence is between people who are not intimately involved and those stronger emotions are not attached. When they fight and people intervene they might go on with their lives and not fight again. On the other hand, we must understand that intimate partner violence is a fight happening between intimate partners who love one another; emotions are therefore attached. Neighbours might see them fighting today and looking happy tomorrow. So when they seek support they need help at that point, they are not saying they want to be separated from their partner, because they love him/her.

¹This study unfortunately shows that intimate partner violence among young people is a problem because young people construct violence to be normal.

Matamela Fulufhelo Beatrice Makongoza is currently completing her master’s in psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand. She is also part of Witsie (Women Intellectuals Transforming Scholarship in Education) and Fact (Father Connection Research Team), established 2011 to conduct research on absent fathers in South Africa.

Endnotes:
1. Dunkle, K., Jewkes, R., Brown, H., Yoshihama, M., Gray, G., McIntyre, J., & Harlow, S. (2004). Prevalence and Patterns of Gender-based Violence and Revictimization among Women Attending Antenatal Clinics in Soweto, South Africa. American Journal of Epidemiology, 160(3), 230-239. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwh194.
2. Abrahams, N., & Jewkes, R. (2005). Effects of South African Men’s having witnessed abuse of their mothers during childhood on their levels of violence in Adult. American Journal of Public Health, 95(10).
3. Boonzaier, F. (2008). “If the man says you must sit, then you must sit”: The relational construction of woman abuse: Gender, Subjective and Violence. Feminism psychology, 18, 183.
4. Thaler, K. (2012). Norms about intimate partner violence among urban South Africans: A quantitative and qualitative vignette analysis. CSSR Working Paper No. 302.
5. Liang, H., Flisher, A. J., & Lombard, C. J. (2007). Bullying, violence, and risk behavior in South African school students. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31, 161-171.

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