Do men suffer spousal abuse?

Published Nov 25, 2008


By Zama Mvulane

"I was getting struck by this woman while I was holding my daughter. The funny thing is that I could not even call the police.

I could not even speak to any of my friends about it," writes a domestic violence victim on one of the growing numbers of websites that seem to be the only effective support for men suffering abuse at the hands of their partners.

The day marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism against gender violence.

Since the launch of this campaign, there is no doubt that great strides have been made in highlighting the plight of women and children who fall victim to gender based violence.

However, there is a lack of acceptance that men, too, are increasingly becoming silent victims of domestic abuse and violence at the hands of their partners, and that there is a growing number of same-sex couples experiencing domestic violence from their partners.

In fact, there seem to be similarities between men and same-sex couples when it comes to dealing with domestic violence.

Both groups have more difficulty finding appropriate support and victims seeking support have to con-front a number of negative perceptions and stereotypes before accessing assistance.

Although figures on the extent of male victims vary considerably, there is growing agreement among researchers that men also suffer domestic physical and emotional abuse at the hands of their partners or spouses.

In a recent study on emerging attitudes and patterns of domestic violence, Glasgow University found that of the 200 women surveyed, 60 percent said "it was acceptable for women to hit their husbands" while 35 percent admitted assaulting their partners and a total of 8 percent admitted to physically injuring them.

Although physical abuse is considered the most obvious form of domestic abuse, emotional abuse by way of insults, intimidation, and other methods can be more devastating than physical abuse, because it is difficult to prove and therefore hard to stop.

Owing to societal pressures and socialisation, men are less likely to talk about the abuse they suffer behind closed doors.

And not much is done to encourage men to report cases of domestic abuse, although many civil society organisations fighting domestic abuse and violence claim to represent men as well.

Although there are a handful of organisations that directly engage men on issues of domestic violence in South Africa, the most commonly known ones - Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training (Adapt) men's programme, One Man Can and South African Men as Partners Network - seem to have chosen to ignore the abuse of men.

Many of these organisations use outdated approaches that assume men are the main perpetrators and thus miss out on the growing number of male victims.

For example, on its website, One Man Can boldly proclaims "undeniably, it is men who commit the majority of all acts of domestic and sexual violence".

Recently the new minister of safety and security, Nkosinathi Mthethwa, highlighted the need to deal with attitudes in the police service as a key priority in dealing with domestic violence.

Central to this is the need to educate the police to take cases of abuse against men just as seriously.

The dynamic of domestic abuse and violence is different between men and women. The reasons, purposes and motivations are often very different.

There are many reasons why people assume men are not victims and why women often ignore the possibility.

In most cases, the actual physical damage inflicted by men is much greater than the actual physical harm inflected by women, so the impact of domestic violence is less apparent and the violence less likely to come to the attention of others when men are abused.

Even when men do report domestic abuse and violence, people may be so astonished that the men end up feeling as though nobody believes them.

What hurts a man mentally and emotionally can be very different from what hurts a woman. For some men, being called a coward, impotent or a failure can have a very different psychological impact from the one it would have on a woman.

Cruel words hurt, but they hurt in different ways and linger in different ways. In most cases, men are more deeply affected by emotional abuse than physical abuse.

- Mvulane is a political adviser to the chief whip of the National Council of Provinces. He writes in his personal capacity.

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