The childhood histories of violent men constantly highlight that violence is a learnt behaviour, says Amelia Kleijn.
“My mother had many frustrations. She was short-tempered. If she hit you, she hit you. My father was very angry sometimes – and then he could kill you if he’s getting cross.”
These are some of the childhood recollections of convicted rapists. I interviewed convicted child rapists in prisons to try and understand what compelled them to behave so violently towards particularly young children. The men’s childhoods were similar, with repeated recollections of terrible maltreatment from the hands of their parents and others. Their role models were abusive, violent - often drunk - bullies.
Account after account reflected what had gone so terribly wrong in these men’s lives, with terrible outcomes for a particularly vulnerable group in our society – children under the age of 3.
The topic of rape is highly emotive and I understand that the rape of particularly young children evokes extremely powerful emotions for many.
The reality is that rapists, too, were children. If we try to understand what can go so wrong in some children’s lives to produce an adult who rapes, we can move beyond anger and outrage, and potentially prevent vulnerable children from becoming adults with violent behaviours.
Rape is a complex crime with multiple causes. However, there are common features in many rapists’ childhood histories. These include frequent beatings from parents, older relatives, teachers and members of the community; exposure to violence at home, at school and in communities; dysfunctional parental relationships; and the absence of caring adults, positive role models or mentors.
Another feature of rapists’, and other violent offenders’, childhoods is the witness of their mothers’ abuse at the hands of fathers or partners. These children, without some sort of intervention, will have a much greater chance of growing into adults with violent behaviours, than those who don’t witness or experience violence during their childhoods. This was evident in my conversations with the men who participated in my study. They told me how they “corrected their girlfriends, by beating them, disciplining them”, and that “to beat somebody, you show her love”. And so the well-documented “cycle of violence” continues, in every sphere of life, inevitably and cruelly thrust upon the next generation.
The childhood histories of violent men constantly highlight that violence is a learnt behaviour. I believe it is time for us to seriously rethink some of our parenting attitudes and daily behaviours.
Children learn about violence because they are surrounded by negative role models, the most damaging of which are abusive, domineering and possessive men, or men who fail to recognise the rights of others, and assert their “power” with physical and other forms of abuse.
Nelson Mandela wrote that: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
While hitting a child often stops socially inappropriate behaviours in the short term, it is the long-term effects that are far more serious. These include the use of violence as a way to resolve conflict, that “might is right”, and the use of violence in later life.
The comments above from convicted rapists reflect this, as does a plethora of other South African, and global, research on gender-based violence.
This doesn’t mean that children can live their lives without boundaries and consequences, when behaviour is inappropriate. Positive parenting and the reinforcement of acceptable behaviours are far healthier ways to guide children, and role-modelling better behaviours that will help children to grow up as well-functioning adults.
However, the reality is that despite the fact that thousands of boys in South Africa are frequently beaten, not all of them will grow up to rape and beat women and children. Research from many organisations, including the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA), demonstrates that when role models care about children, show love and concern, and model better behaviours, the trajectory of many children’s lives can be changed for the good.
These role models can be teachers, community members and leaders, older male relatives and friends, and other mentors. Men who give their partners and children love, safety, respect and dignity can be men who children look up to, respect, and whose behaviour they copy.
So what kind of role models are we? Are we making active choices to be positive role models? Do we have a realistic and positive effect on the children around us?
Can you help to mitigate the scourge of sexual violence in our country?