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20 Sep 2019 00:00
Protest: Hundreds of people gathered at Durban’s North Beach recently in solidarity with women who have been violated and killed. (Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)
The rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana has resulted in renewed calls to urgently address violence against women.
But there is a silence about the victimisation of men.
Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of violence. But they are also the victims of it.
Patterns of violence affecting women and men are quite different.
Men constitute a large proportion of victims of homicide and other types of violence where weapons are used to inflict serious injury.
Women and teenage girls are the overwhelming majority of victims of sexual violence. Figures on rape released by the South African Police Service last week indicate that 90% of victims over the age of 10 are female. Girls and women in the 10 to 19 age category account for 21% of these victims.
In violence experienced by women the perpetrators are also, more frequently than with men, current or former intimate partners. Of killings of women, roughly 50% are carried out by intimate partners. Killings of men by their intimate partners make up a very small percentage of male homicide — and these murders are often a response by women to physical or other abuse.
Domestic violence, which is generally recorded as common assault in crime statistics, is a major part of the violence that women face.
Police data on assault, read with National Victims of Crime Survey data on reporting rates, suggest that men may suffer higher rates of assault than women do.
Men are a large majority of victims of serious assaults, which are recorded by police as assault with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm.
On the other hand, women may suffer from higher levels of repeat assault victimisation, though data on this is lacking.
Much violence against women is not reported to police, but the same applies to violence against men.
Women and men face high levels of violence. But, to some degree, they live in different worlds in respect of the risks that they face. Men experience high levels of violence, much of it from people outside the family and their closest relationships.
In contrast, a high proportion of the violence women face is from the inner circle of men that they have close relationships with.
Moreover, when men experience violence it is frequently because they have chosen to resist or physically defend themselves against a male aggressor. In the vast majority of robberies, for instance, physical injury can be averted by co-operating with the perpetrator, regardless of whether the victim is a man or a woman.
The reality for victims of sexual violence, most of whom are women, is completely different. As with robbery, if they are targeted and resist, they increase the risk of other physical injury or death. But co-operation with the attacker involves submitting to extreme bodily violation, even if it reduces the risk of other physical injury.
Sexual violence also carries with it the risk of sexually transmitted disease, including HIV.
The relative physical strength or dangerousness of the two people involved is a key factor in understanding the dynamics of potentially violent confrontations. Men are not only on average more familiar with how to be violent, but are also on average physically stronger than women. Men who are violent against women generally take advantage of this. In respect of violence by men against other men, there is not only reliance on physical strength and knowledge of the repertoires of violence, but a greater reliance on weapons.
Many violent situations where both parties are male are disputes that escalated in intensity. The distinction between “victim” and “perpetrator” may be blurred. The person who comes to be defined as the perpetrator may ultimately be the one who gets the upper hand in the confrontation.
Men also tend to be more afraid of violence from other men than from women. Robbers may anticipate that they are more likely to face violent resistance if the victim is male, and even that the victim will be armed. If the victim is male, this increases the likelihood that the robbers will resort to physical violence at any sign of resistance.
There are significant differences in the patterns of violence but it is reasonable to say that men suffer as much from violence as women do.
The focus by gender activists on violence against women originated in a context in which violence against women was largely ignored, excused and normalised.
One of their achievements has been to secure recognition for violence against women as a government priority. This is reflected in the tendency to characterise violence in South Africa as primarily a problem of violence against women. More should certainly be done to address violence against women. But a single-minded focus on violence against women, even though there are also high levels of male victimisation, appears to suggest that violence against men is more acceptable.
Many government measures to address violence are focused on violence against women. The key obstacle to them are implementation failure that cut across government. Failures in providing justice affect men just as much as they affect women.
Considering levels of violence against women and children, these problems should be regarded as a crisis that requires urgent attention. But the same applies to levels of violence against men.
Violence against men is worthy of attention in its own right. But it is also worth asking if violence against women can be addressed without addressing that against men.
Focusing exclusively on violence against women may be self-defeating even for those primarily concerned with the situation facing women.
Violence is sometimes identified as a product of toxic masculinity. But this masculinity is, in part, produced by men becoming habituated to violence through violence from other men.
There is a need for strengthening measures that are targeted at violence against women. But this must be part of a society wide approach to addressing violence.
David Bruce is an independent researcher specialising in crime and criminal justice
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