The heart of gender-based violence

 Madhush Mathews1

On 28 April, Karabo Mokoena was killed and set alight in a nondescript ditch in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Her burnt remains were found by a passerby early the following morning. That in itself is horrifying, but it soon emerged that the prime suspect in her murder investigation was none other than her boyfriend, Sandile Mantsoe. What’s even more unspeakable though, is that this incident of intimate partner violence isn’t isolated. Within days, her death had sparked hundreds of harrowing tales of abuse from women across South Africa and brought into the spotlight the pandemic of gender-based violence2 (GBV) in our society.

The odds are that if you haven’t directly experienced some form of GBV, you know someone who has. But in case there are any lingering doubts about its pervasiveness, let me share some statistics with you from a selection of studies:3

  • One study found that 77% of women in Limpopo, 51% in Gauteng, 45% in the Western Cape and 36% in KwaZulu-Natal had experienced some form of GBV.4

  • By and large, men were the perpetrators of this violence. For example, 76% of men in Gauteng, 48% in Limpopo and 41% in KwaZulu-Natal admitted to having perpetrated GBV.5

  • Approximately 44% of 1 394 men who were interviewed in another study were willing to admit that they abused their female partners.6

  • More than 50% of women in Gauteng have experienced intimate partner violence, while 80% of men admitted to having perpetrated violence against their intimate partners.7

  • Yet another study involving a random selection of women in South Africa concluded that 24.6% have experienced some kind of physical assault from their current partners.8

  • Sexual violence was found to be the most common form of GBV.9

  • GBV is persistent and widespread in South Africa, with violence against women occurring irrespective of socioeconomic status, age, race and religion.10

This is abhorrent! We should be morally outraged that we live in a society in which the systemic abuse of women is commonplace. The statistics suggest that, yes, men are trash! And men, before you jump to your defence, have you taken offence at the risk of abuse our mothers, sisters and daughters are subjected to daily? Have you risen to their defence?

Men, we are culpable, either as perpetrators who have actively abused or continue to abuse women, or as enablers. We have either consciously or unconsciously reinforced the gender stereotypes and inequity of our patriarchal cultures. We have been complicit in the objectification of women. We have stood by and watched as the women around us have been shown disrespect, even contempt. We are culpable, and any discussion of GBV must begin with us confessing our guilt. Yes, men are trash.

I think it’s appropriate for me to pause here and acknowledge to you, women, that I don’t get it. I haven’t walked in your shoes. I don’t know what it’s like to be under a constant barrage of abuse because of my gender. Yet, in his goodness, I hope that I can still faithfully point us to what the God of the Bible has to say about GBV.

Our aim for this three-part series is to show that the God of the Bible is not blind to the pain and injustice we experience. He knows, he cares, and he has been at work throughout human history to bring restoration. My aim in this article is to locate the problem: what is the root cause of GBV? If we don’t rightly diagnose the problem, we’ll look in the wrong place for the solution. In part two, we’ll build on this foundation to locate the solution: where should we look to find justice, equity and healing? Finally, in part three, we will consider more deeply the questions of justice for the broken and healing for the hurting. I appeal to you to stick it out with us and be patient as we slowly build a biblical response over three weeks.

THE ROOT CAUSE

What, then, are the causes of GBV in South Africa? The answer is complex. Let me summarise. Individual, community, economic, cultural, religious and legal factors are all at play interacting at different levels of society.11

Some examples at an individual level may include growing up in a home characterised by violence, which becomes normalised later in life as a means of communication, or having an absent father or a father who is not a positive role model. At community level, factors include a neighbourhood where violence against women is seen as the norm culturally and religiously, the use of alcohol, and the ownership of guns (all of which are celebrated as markers of masculinity).

At the economic level, factors include poverty, unemployment and changing economic statuses among men and women.12 The fact that an economic dependence often exists in patriarchal societies, with women dependent on men for basic needs like food and shelter, puts them in the vulnerable position of accepting abuse as a means of survival.

The impact of culture, tradition and religion cannot be overstated. Men are often placed in a powerful position in relation to women, which often becomes normalised, with both men and women being socialised into conforming to these practices.13 Social constructions of manhood often drive GBV, because the masculine identity is intertwined with the notion of power, itself a major driver of GBV. It confirms men’s superiority over women and feeds into societal perceptions of what it means to be a man.

Therefore, many studies conclude that it is (1) imbalances of power in gender inequity and (2) discriminatory patriarchal practices against women that are the two cornerstones of GBV.14 So power differentials in gender inequity and our social constructions of manhood must be tackled (even as we acknowledge the many other factors at play).

DIGGING EVEN DEEPER

This is helpful, but let’s dig even deeper. Why is gender inequity commonplace? Why are our social constructions of manhood and womanhood so distorted?

A great place to start is right at the beginning of the Bible, where we see not only God’s good design for his creation, but where it all went wrong. The narrative begins with a self-existent God who creates, bringing order and purpose out of nothing. He brings humanity into existence as the pinnacle of his creation to rule over and care for the rest of the created order under God:

26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

27 So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.

Genesis 1:26-28a, 31 (NIV2011)

He makes humanity in his image, unlike the rest of creation, conferring intrinsic worth on us. He makes us male and female, of equal value, status and dignity under God. And his assessment of this creation? It is very good. So we see here God affirming the status of women in their very being. We see humanity living in a good world characterised by good relationships: husband loving, serving, honouring and leading, wife loving and joyfully helping in the task God assigned them. We also see as we read on, the intimacy they enjoyed with God, a good and caring creator who is near, living with his people.

But just a couple of chapters into the story, it all goes wrong. Humanity rejects God’s rule, making a unilateral declaration of independence, taking it upon themselves to determine what is right and wrong, good and evil (Genesis 3). So sin enters the frame, wrecking everything in its path. The whole creation falls under a curse. Human hostility against the creator God becomes the norm. The very good world of chapter 1 becomes a good world distorted by the effects of sin. Still, God remains gracious in preserving Adam and Eve, allowing them to still bear new life and fill the earth.

As we read on, humanity spreads across the face of the world, but sin goes with them. Human culture advances; the arts and sciences are developed; great cities are built. But it is a culture that has rejected God and therefore is characterised by wickedness. Cain’s descendants kill in unbridled revenge, they reject God’s design for marriage and family, and they are arrogant in their godlessness (Genesis 4). Lamech, standing as the epitome of human sinfulness, glorifies his wickedness in song. For him, women are a commodity, to be enslaved and used for pleasure. Lamech, if you like, is the original “Mr #MenAreTrash.”

The next few chapters make for some depressing reading. Sin just continues to spread and escalate, because of course, wherever men go, sin goes with them. This is God’s indictment of humanity:

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.

Genesis 6:5 (NIV2011)

Again, he says:

21every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.

Genesis 8:21 (NIV2011)

Jesus, the central figure of the Bible’s story, also weighs in. Here’s his assessment of the human condition:

20 [Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

Mark 7:20-23 (NIV2011)

This is the diagnosis. The problem is not an external one. Its not that society or our families or our circumstances make us this way. These factors may make it easier (or sometimes harder) to act on our inclinations, but the problem is that these are our inclinations. What we want at the core of our being is evil; our desires are fundamentally opposed to the creator God. We aren’t basically good people in a messed-up world. No, we are the ones who are messed up. We are the ones who distort human culture and exploit one another.

What lies under gender inequity, under our distorted constructions of manhood and womanhood? The answer is sin, rooted in the human heart. It’s not just the empirical evidence before us that suggests that men are trash, God himself declares it: men are trash.

GBV and the attitudes and practices that drive it are intrinsically evil. They are contrary to God’s good design. But the Bible goes further. It’s not a problem “out there,” it’s a problem “in here”–a problem that affects every human heart.

Thankfully, the Bible’s story doesn’t end after a few horrible chapters. It’s a big book that tells a great story. It’s great because it’s about how God acts in history to take this good world distorted by sin and redeem it. God hates sin; he hates human rebellion and wickedness. God cares about your hurt, about the injustice, about the horror stories we hear every day. And he remains in control in the chaos; he’s not asleep at the wheel when horrific crimes are committed. He’s at work to restore this broken world, to heal and to bring justice. Where human justice fails, divine justice will stand. Where the scars don’t seem to fade, God promises complete restoration. It’s this restoration that we’ll explore in part two of this series.

So where does that leave us now? I’d suggest that #MenAreTrash is a helpful discourse, not least because it locates the problem in men, in our hearts. It’s not some men who are trash, it’s all of us. The root problem isn’t how we were brought up or our lack of self-control. The root problem is our inclination to reject God and the subsequent wickedness that bubbles out from inside us. Does that offend you? Good. It should. But it should also drive you to recognise that you’re in desperate need of open-heart surgery. It should drive you to a place of deep remorse and incredible humility, and in that place of weakness and helplessness to find your true manhood by turning to the one who can restore. God is able to powerfully change us from the inside out: making us men and women whose identity is shaped not by social constructions, but by our connection to the creator; making us men who work hard to break down gender inequity, who have a clear conscience when it comes to the objectification of women, who stand up for the vulnerable, calling out inappropriate behaviour. If this kind of conviction and activism characterises you, praise God! Its a gift of his common grace to us. And it’s a helpful starting point in this conversation


1This series of articles is adapted from a series of talks hosted by FOCUS at the University of Johannesburg.

2GBV includes domestic, physical, emotional, economic and sexual violence.

3Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (2016) ‘Gender-Based Violence in South Africa: A Brief Review’ (Braamfontein: Johannesburg).

4Gender Links (2012) ‘Research: Gender Violence, A Reality in South Africa’ (Johannesburg: Gender Links).

5Gender Links (2012).

6Abrahams, N., Jewkes, R. & Laubsher, R. (1999) ‘I Do Not Believe in Democracy in the Home: Men’s Relationships with and Abuse of Women,’ MRC Technical Report (Cape Town: Medical Research Council).

7Institute for Security Studies (2011) ‘So Why Do the Numbers Keep Rising? A Reflection on Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Domestic Violence and Rape’ (ISS Seminar: Pretoria).

8Jewkes, R., Levin, J. & Penn-Kekana, L. (2002) ‘Risk Factors for Domestic Violence: Findings from a South African Cross-Sectional Study,’ Social Science and Medicine 55(9): 1603–1617.

9Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (2016).

10South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016 (2017) ‘Domestic Violence’ (Pretoria: Statistics South Africa).

11Krug, E., Dahlberg, L., Mercy, J., Zwi, A. & Lozano, R. (2015) World Report on Violence and Health (Geneva: World Health Organisation).

12Heise, L., Ellsberg, M. & Gottmoeller, M. (2002) ‘A Global Overview of Gender-Based Violence,’ International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics 78(1): S5–S14.

13Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (2016).

14Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (2016).