To the mania born – the window of opportunity to prevent gender-based violence starts with babies

To the mania born – the window of opportunity to prevent gender-based violence starts with babies
Marchers protest against gender-based violence in Durban on 26 April 2021. (Photo:Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Research shows that the perpetrators of violence towards women and children fall into two distinct personality types. The roots for their aggressive identities are laid down in early childhood.

Recent discussions on the topic of gender-based violence (GBV) indicate that there continues to be an increase in its incidence, despite the repeated speeches, promises, indignation and money invested.

It is presumed there is a shared commitment from those involved that efforts should be implemented to prevent, or at least reduce, the incidence of such crimes. If so, it is confusing that so little attention is devoted to understanding the causes of such behaviour. It will surely be difficult to prevent an action if we do not understand what causes it.

Studies that have pursued an understanding of the causes of GBV have consistently arrived at two conclusions: there is a need for more research, and the causes of GBV are multifaceted and originate from within different layers of society, from macro to micro.

Although it is incorrect to assume that perpetrators of such violence fit a consistent, uniform personality profile, it is true that a vast majority will share characteristics of one of two distinct groups.

One group will be characterised by a cold, superior aloofness manifesting in calculating and controlling behaviour, which is evident in self-opinionated beliefs and critical judgement of their partner. Efforts will be made to control their partner’s movement, clothing, association, financial independence and activities.

Their partners are likely to feel stripped of any personal identity and isolated from family and friends. In many areas of functioning, there will be coercive control and an imbalance of power.

The other group comprises those with explosive emotional characteristics whose emotional and behavioural control is poorly regulated. Such limited control is further weakened by the use of alcohol.

Their partners and children walk on eggshells, always vigilant of the mood of the perpetrator and carefully monitoring their words and behaviour so as not to spark a response. These perpetrators are highly sensitive to any indication of disrespect, withdrawal of affection or an apparent lack of appreciation.

In diagnostic terms, both groups fall in the category of personality disorders referred to in the diagnostic literature as “cluster B”. This quartet of disorders is distinct from severe psychiatric pathology and includes the personality traits of the narcissist, histrionic, borderline and psychopathic personality types.

Personality structure

How does this assist in understanding the causes that could result in more goal-directed prevention methods?

Such an understanding will need to be integrated with research efforts that understand causes from a broader perspective that includes cultural and societal norms to which perpetrators are exposed. These norms contribute to their beliefs and underpin their justifications for their actions.

What is encouraging regarding recognising the link between these psychological causes and prevention is that the roots of both categories of perpetrators are found in the same stage of development, and deficiencies in these personality structures are associated with the same developmental failure.

Intervention at this level may therefore have the benefit of simultaneously reducing the probable development of characteristics found in both types of perpetrators.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Framing gender-based violence as a ‘crisis’ merely bandages a festering societal wound

Central to both types are two domains of personality structure: identity and emotions. Perpetrators usually present with insecure identities. This may sound counterintuitive when one considers the typical arrogance of the perpetrator with narcissistic traits. However, the outward portrayal of superiority is usually a defence against deeply ingrained insecurity, or a belief of an inordinate sense of entitlement.

Both require an external source of recognition and acknowledgement to prevent a decline into a feared state of nothingness. This need can be an insatiable appetite to be “narcissistically fed”.

Voters are enticed by the promise of meeting adult rights, and there are far more political gains to be achieved by emphasising adult rights than suggesting that we put our children first.

Failure to be adequately acknowledged will lead to rage in those feeling entitled to such recognition, whereas those who fear rejection or abandonment are likely to respond with an annihilation panic. Both anger and panic can result in extreme violence, although the source of the violence may differ.

In the absence of a secure personal identity, it is possible for men to don the cloak of toxic masculinity that assists in filling the void of personal emptiness.

A fragile, insecure identity coupled with a poor capacity for regulation of emotions and a dismissive attitude to the emotions of others create fertile ground for violence.

First window of opportunity

The chronological age where these core personality functions are developed is situated in the preschool stage (0 to five years). This becomes the first window of opportunity in the prevention of GBV and other forms of violence.

Statistics associated with child abuse, sexual assault, neglect and abandonment consistently place South Africa among the highest-ranked countries. Coupled with these more obvious assaults on children and trauma is the high rate of parental separation, absent parents and the resulting undue pressure on single parents and those tasked with the care of numerous children.

Even with the best of intentions it is not possible, in these situations, to attend to the needs of each infant in a way that will develop secure identities, empathy and the capacity for emotional regulation.

There is a vast amount of research that consistently identifies the importance of secure attachments in infants and demonstrates how the development of such bonding has a lifelong effect on personality structure and relationship stability.

Conversely, insecure attachment is consistently identified in the perpetrators of aggression throughout their lifespan and impairs personal functioning in the key domains of identity, empathy and emotional regulation. Research has confirmed that early exposure to trauma and neglect determines neurological pathways that provide a template for personality development.

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If there is truth in the words of John Bowlby that attachment styles are evident “from the cradle to the grave”, preventative measures focused solely on adult perpetrators and victims are likely to have minimal effect on the overall reduction in the prevalence of GBV.

Without a radical change in attitudes and the approach to this pandemic of violence, in which we begin to pay serious attention to the theories of causes, we will witness an increase in GBV for the following reasons:

Society does not have a consistent attitude towards violence in general

We live in a fragmented society in which group identity takes priority over an identity of global humanity. Relying on identification within a group enables us to define our own superiority over others and justify “our” violence while condemning “theirs”. Many of our leaders set a poor example in speeches and songs inciting violence against “others” and have resorted, at times, to punches. We need a national declaration against all violence that is taught and demonstrated at every level of society and in every social institution.

Socioeconomic factors that increase violence will not improve

There is an established link between socioeconomic pressures and domestic violence. The stress and uncertainty of adequate provision and material security are known to decrease tolerance for further stress and weaken the capacity to inhibit reactive behaviour. South Africa is facing widespread unemployment and poverty, which will impact negatively on the physical safety of those most vulnerable.

Violence in the next generation

Daily we are exposed to stories of violence in schools, from bullying to extreme acts of stabbing. The prevalence of these stories suggests that the next generation considers violence to be an acceptable strategy for resolving conflicts and expressing feelings. Teenagers present the second window of opportunity for prevention strategies and all schools should adopt a clear and consistent approach to all forms of bullying, including a review of traditional initiation practices as well as introducing reliably structured education programmes on relationships and gender issues.

Reluctance of perpetrators to seek help

A typical feature of perpetrators is an inability to self-reflect and accept personal responsibility. They are more likely to justify their violent behaviour and deflect responsibility to the provocation of their partners or children. One reactive response that may have preventative potential is the immediate sanction of violence, however “mild” it may be, with at least consequence and referral for therapy. Femicide usually occurs after a protracted period of repeated assaults.

There is no evidence of changes in general childcare practices

The consistent research findings associated with the importance of developing secure attachments during infancy is just too compelling to ignore. We can no longer claim that we are unaware of its significance. It is, however, an unpopular message, particularly in political circles. Voters are enticed by the promise of meeting adult rights, and there are far more political gains to be achieved by emphasising adult rights than suggesting that we put our children first. This is a societal problem and meaningful intervention will require a committed and coordinated analysis and approach.

Without careful research we cannot build reliable prevention programmes

Our reactive and survivor-based programmes are important, but they are unlikely to reduce the prevalence of such violence. Resources need to be directed at thoroughly understanding the causes of GBV. Such research is likely to conclude that GBV is understood best in ecological terms – social, cultural, economic, personal – and effective preventative programmes will need to be constructed in the context of such a model of understanding.

Preventative measures are not high on the political agenda

Rhetorical speeches and grandiose functions attract attention, approval and support, but they are not proven to be effective preventative strategies. Promises imply care but do not translate into providing safety for potential victims.

Read in Daily Maverick: “It’s been three and a half years since the Gender-Based Violence Summit and still no GBV and Femicide Council

This message of prevention is not a popular one and detracts from political campaigns aimed at our narcissistic hearts. Children are politically powerless and require the selfless attention of adults in order to expect a better and safer future.

If we are serious about building a society of peace, we need to pay attention to our foundations. Surely a failure to construct secure foundations will result in a collapse of society into pieces. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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