SOUTH AFRICA: What's Love Got to Do With It?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Make Every Woman Count
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

IT IS widely accepted that strategies aimed at ending violence against women have to focus on perpetrators and survivors. Gender-based violence - domestic violence and rape - is largely aimed at women because they are women. The fact that they disproportionately affect women more than men has led to a recognition by the constitutional court that such violence is a form of gender discrimination. Over the past decade there has been a trend in many countries of creating space for the role that men can play in ending gender-based violence. It is seen as a progression from the question asked to survivors of violence: "Why doesn't she leave?", to asking the abuser: "Why does he hit her?" South Africa has also seen a steady increase of organisations that seek to answer this complex question by engaging in various strategies. These include introducing us to the "new man in town", an embodiment of positive and progressive masculinity, and beginning conversations with men about how they can help to end violence against women. In terms of this perspective domestic violence is not only a concern for women and as such, all members of society, including men, have a role to play in ending it. But there are times when the messages by women and men's groups, which are supposed to complement each other, come into collision. Nowhere is this illuminated better than in the "I can change" ad campaign featuring a well-known South African actor. The 59-second ad recalls how he used to beat up his wife. It is supposed to convey a message to men who abuse their wives that they too can change and that change starts with them, as it happened with the actor. At the end of the ad, there's a number on the screen that I assume is for men who want to make the change. It's that simple, according to the advert. But is it really? Change in domestic violence settings is a controversial issue. While the message is focused on men who are abusers, what effect will it have on women who are survivors of violence? A personal narrative is always tricky. It is subjective. A personal narrative about being a reformed perpetrator looks brave, but it is one of the biggest impositions that can ever be made to 59 seconds on television. What do you say about yourself? Most ads shy away from this method because while personal stories can be effective in showing us a human face of an abuser, they can also detract from the point of the message. A degree of familiarity with a well known personality and gaps in the narrative are some of the distractions. Other forms of ads, that rely on scriptwriters, are no less effective. Their messages are often very subtle, but hard-hitting. The recent advert showing the complicity of many to domestic violence was brilliantly portrayed in a social experiment showing a residential complex where people keep quiet to the loud screams of a woman and yet have no qualms going to the same house to protest the loud noises made by someone playing music. There was also an anti-rape advert by another South African actor that was brash, in your face and obviously intended to state an obvious fact, that men who raped were not real men and highlight that the tag of South Africa as a rape capital of the world was hardly a good one. Some took offence. Both ads were short, targeted and made their points succinctly. The attempt to simplify what is a complex issue - the vexed question of change by perpetrators - is what puts this ad on collision course with strategies currently used to engage women victims of domestic violence. Change is a theme song for domestic violence. Survivors would often like perpetrators to change their behaviour. Perpetrators often convince survivors that they can change and that they have changed. Counsellors have to spend hours explaining to survivors that while change can happen, it rarely does because changing an abuser is not an easy process. Those who are willing to change must commit to a lifelong process of learning, identifying and acknowledging the belief systems that gave rise to the abuse in the first place. Like recovering from alcohol and drugs, where every day is a struggle to stay sober, the recognition that one cannot claim to be cured from domestic violence is also required. The actor seems to have stopped being abusive. In 59 seconds, he attributes this change to willpower. "No one told me anything," he tells us. He says he beat his wife because he wanted her to love him and then asks viewers, how can you say someone who is scared of you loves you? This rhetorical question does not only miss the point, but reinforces one of the dangerous myths about domestic violence: that the survivor bears responsibility for the violence. A man wanting to be loved by his wife surely can't be that objectionable. Are we supposed to understand the beating as an action of a desperate, but loving man? People working on anti-domestic violence strategies have spent decades trying to refute the link between "loving too much", "loving too little" and domestic violence. In Tina Turner's words, "What's love got to do with it?" The failure to take responsibility and the attempt to apportion blame to the survivor are signs that he has not changed. Women are told to look out for this when interacting with a man who is recovering. That the actor is crying throughout the ad, is also unfortunate. Often, the abuser in the immediate aftermath of a violent attack, will cry and say he will change, if he does not claim to have already changed. The ad could easily be about someone who has just stopped beating up his partner than someone who professes to have stopped. The need to justify the violence years after it is alleged to have stopped is troubling. There's no excuse for abuse. That's what the anti-domestic violence posters say and that's the literal meaning they intend to convey. Who is the audience? Should men be told that they can change? Most definitely. In a field that is already swamped with myths and misinformation talking to men only, as the ad seems to, when women subjected to domestic violence are also watching and hoping for change, it is dangerous at its best. There is a need to pay attention to the messages and strategies that women's rights organisations have used to ensure that the work to end violence against women is complementary. Attempting to build positive masculinity while plying women with a false sense of hope is hardly a strategy to end violence against women. Strategies for working with men to end violence against women have to understand that while the question "why doesn't she leave?" is important, we are nowhere near, "because he can change" as a plausible answer.