Understanding domestic violence
At Simon Dippenaar and Associates we feel strongly about domestic abuse and gender-based violence (GBV). We know that domestic violence is not perpetrated exclusively by men against women, and there are men who suffer emotional and even physical abuse at the hands of female partners. Intimate violence also happens in same-sex relationships. But in our society, the vast majority of abuse is gender-related and involves women suffering at the hands of male partners. We speak out regularly against GBV and vehemently defend the rights of women to live free of fear and abuse.
Many women suffer violence at the hands of partners every day. Because physical abuse is so widespread, other forms of abuse are often overlooked or ignored; and they are certainly much harder to prove in a court of law. But coercive or controlling behaviour towards a partner is a form of abuse as serious as physical abuse, one that can often leave invisible scars that last much longer than bodily ones. Ironically, because GBV is endemic in our country, women who experience coercive control or emotional abuse may feel they have no right to complain. If they haven’t been beaten, they should be grateful, they may think.
What is coercive control?
Coercive control often starts as apparent adoration. The controlling partner is charming, loving, seemingly in thrall to the other. But gradually adulation turns to possessiveness and control. Bit by bit the controlled partner is stripped of their independence, their sense of self, and their basic rights, such as the right to make decisions about their time, the people they see and how they dress or wear their hair or make-up.
Examples of controlling behaviour
There are many controlling behaviours and it is not possible to provide an exhaustive list in an article of this length. Tactics may be physical, sexual, economic, psychological, legal, institutional or all of the above. They may include (but are by no means limited to):
- Making unreasonable or unfair demands on the other person
- Conducting surveillance, for example the partner’s cell phone or email account may be monitored
- Gradually separating the partner from friends and family, for example by criticising choice of friends or making visitors feel unwelcome in the home. Contact with certain individuals may actually be forbidden
- Restricting daily activities, for example not allowing the partner to drive or to work
- Controlling the partner’s access to information and services
- Coercing the partner into having sex or even having children, for example the controlling male partner may insist the woman discontinue contraception
- Monitoring or manipulating finances or restricting the partner’s economic independence. This could involve reading bank statements or, if the partner doesn’t have her own income, withholding cash as ‘punishment’ or using it as ‘reward’ for good behaviour
- Accusing the partner of infidelity or inappropriate behaviour or objecting to the wearing of attractive clothing. Displaying extreme or unreasonable jealousy or possessiveness
The law and why it is so hard to prosecute
In some countries coercive or controlling behaviour is a distinct offence enshrined in legislation. In South Africa we do not have a discrete law criminalising coercive control, but it is covered by the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998 (the DVA), which, in addition to defining physical abuse, describes non-physical abuse:
Coercive control is most likely to be considered a form of psychological abuse, though it could contain elements of emotional and verbal abuse as well. But proving control can be problematic, because coercive control involves micro-regulation of daily activities that are commonly associated with the conventional role of women, particularly in our society – wives and female partners are expected to be homemakers and sexual partners and to provide for their male partners’ needs. In a culture such as ours that still holds many gendered stereotypes of both men’s and women’s conduct, particularly in relationships, separating the reasonable expectation or performance of one’s role from excessively controlling behaviour by the other can be difficult. The controlling manner may even…or at first…be interpreted as a sign of love and the woman may feel flattered, e.g. by jealousy or restrictions on how she may dress.
Recognising controlling behaviour
As a result, it is hard to both recognise and prosecute controlling behaviour. The partner herself or those around her may not acknowledge the control as such, seeing it as a ‘normal’ or even affectionate influence. The problem may only be identified when serious threats to autonomy begin to emerge, or when the personality starts to become altered (a best friend may remark, “she never used to behave like that”). But how likely is a woman in those circumstances to bring a charge against her partner? She already believes she has no right to independent thought. Sadly, coercive control often only surfaces in the wake of physical violence. Women may only escape the situation or lay a charge when reach breaking point is reached.
Coercive control is hard to prosecute because a judge may not be able to objectively assess whether such control has taken place, particularly if the actions undertaken by the ‘victim’ appear voluntary. Cooking a meal in a certain way, at a certain time may well be an activity a wife is perfectly happy to engage in. Or it may have been mandated under threat from the husband. There are very unlikely to be witnesses to the ‘contract’, so whom do the courts believe? A woman who has been systematically oppressed may also not be a convincing witness, particularly in contrast to her charming, confident partner. Furthermore, the very act of giving evidence in court may be unbearably traumatic for someone who has already been traumatised, rendering them confused or disorientated and their testimony unconvincing. They may not remember events clearly and may not give coherent evidence, negatively impacting their credibility.
New laws…or change of attitudes?
Arguably, a discrete piece of legislation defining coercive control, such as that introduced recently in the UK, could help to bring more cases to justice here in South Africa. But there would still be a need to educate the public to recognise controlling behaviour, and training of judges to understand the impact of trauma on witnesses so that their evidence is considered reliable.
Such a law is a long way off. Meanwhile we have the DVA to protect victims of intimate violence and psychological abuse. If you recognise your situation or that of someone you know in the information above and would like to talk to someone in confidence, give Simon a call on 087 550 2740 or 076 116 0623 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law. If you are suffering at the hands of a controlling partner and need help to bring him…or her…to justice, we can use the full force of the DVA to prosecute your case. You can rest assured your query will be handled with discretion and sensitivity.