Women take part in a protest against violence in Durban.Picture: MARILYN BERNARD
Last month, young women from around Gauteng gathered in Soweto to demand an end to violence against women.

It was not the first time - nor will it be the last - that these calls have been made.

Any woman growing up in South Africa will know that feeling of dread when you realise the light is failing and you still have much longer to walk before you are in a busier, safer area.

Or the dread when the taxi empties long before your stop and you realise you will soon be the only passenger. Or the panic when you realise you have missed your lift and must now wait, alone, for the next ride.

Many South African women know what it feels like to live in fear of those around you. What we also know is that violence against women is so endemic that we have normalised these incidents - thanking our ancestors we were not raped or killed, but only mugged, beaten, abused. And even then, we have not questioned why, but have blamed ourselves for what we have done or not done to make ourselves the target of such an abuse.

Take, for example, the recent assault by Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Mduduzi Manana of a woman at a club in Fourways, Johannesburg. What, asked pundits on social media, had she done to warrant such an attack? And, when it was suggested she had called him gay, many were satisfied that this would explain it all.

It is a timely reminder that gender based violence is not simply a manifestation of a violent society. No, it is a form of violence influenced by gender roles. It is one of the most widespread violations of human rights worldwide affecting one out of every three women. It affects their bodies in many ways with profound health impacts.

The study Understanding Gender Policy and Gender-Based Violence in South Africa, conducted on behalf of Soul City Institute in 2015, showed that gender based violence - violence directed against a person because of their gender - reflects the unequal power relations between them.

It showed that women and girls are most likely to be affected by gender-based violence because of lack of resources, lower levels of education and social norms that pressurise them to accept the violence.

Global research in 2014 entitled “What works to prevent violence against women and girls?” by Lori Heise and Emma Fulu showed that the majority of partner violence is perpetrated by men against women in lower income countries.

No single factor causes partner violence, nor is there a single pathway to perpetration but some factors appear more than others. These factors include exposure to violence in childhood; presence of community norms that support wife abuse; binge drinking; and harmful notions of masculinity and rigid gender roles.

The report notes that children who witness violence between their parents or who are physically abused themselves are more likely to use violence in their relationships as adults.

This is backed by attitudes and norms accepting partner violence. Data from a wide range of countries demonstrate that wife beating is normative in many settings, with women as well as men expressing support for partner violence under certain circumstances.

“What did you do?” is often the first question women are asked when they end up in hospital. For many, the support is even more explicit: He must show who runs the home and the relationship.

Often the behaviour being sought is one in deference to male authority.

Let’s be honest - it is a behaviour upheld by men and women.

She deserved it, they say.

When violence is an acceptable tool then we lose the moral authority to say when it can be used.

WHO research also shows that two of the strongest and most consistent factors that predict differences in the prevalence of partner violence across sites and countries are the degree to which wife beating is perceived as acceptable and the degree to which culture grants men the authority to control female behaviour.

What then of our notion of what makes a “real” man? Harmful notions of masculinity and rigid gender roles create an environment conducive to partner violence.

In a patriarchal society such as South Africa, men are given greater value than young women.

Their privileges include power over women’s behaviour, entitlement with respect to marital and extra-marital sex, and command of the economic and political sphere. In return, men are expected to provide economically for the family and to conform to certain expectations regarding masculinity.

Research suggests that risk of partner violence is highest when “being a man” is linked to toughness with the male as the all powerful breadwinner.

These expectations were linked to violence and unsafe behaviours.

If we want to end the cycle of violence against women then we must begin to tackle and challenge the behaviours we expect from both men and women.

And changing violent behaviours starts with changing attitudes.

* Makutoane is advocacy manager at Soul City Institute of Social Justice. Follow her on twitter @ndumakutoane.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent