Gender-based violence is an unrelenting reality in the lives of many South Africans. Not a week goes past where media headlines and Government officials highlight the scourge which affects thousands of South Africans.
One merely needs to look at the crime statistics to understand the severity and brutality of the situation. According to the latest stats, a jaw-dropping 12 562 sexual offences were reported to the police from July to September 2020. That is over 136 cases a day while you were going about your daily life. What makes this figure even more disturbing is that domestic violence is not included in those numbers.
While a variety of charitable organisations, media houses and Government officials continuously urge people to unite against gender-based violence, the time for mere words is now over. In lieu of the reality shattering gender-based violence pandemic in the country, 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is a global initiative driven by the United Nations. It is a campaign that takes place from November 25 to December 10.
Dr Bianca Cooper, of ER Consulting Inc and Principal Clinical Manager at Mediclinic Newcastle, explains one of the most prominent misconceptions encompassing domestic violence is that it is something which happens to other people. She elaborates, “We all believe that the communities we live in, and the people we interact with regularly, would never commit such acts, however, domestic violence occurs everywhere and in all demographics and economic groups.” She further stresses the fact by affirming even the most outwardly respectable and happy couples might have a problem with domestic violence, and they often hide it very well.
Moreover, she emphasises, “It is also a myth that only women can be affected by domestic violence; although it is less common, men can also be victims. There is a belief that, “people deserved it” – that they were responsible for being assaulted by their partner by their words or actions – this is never the case. The only person to blame in domestic violence is the perpetrator. It is also a misconception that people are being “stupid” or “weak” by choosing to stay with their violent partners – it is easy to judge from the outside. However, there are complex and multifactorial reasons that people do not leave these relationships. Abusers play on these factors in order to continue their cycle of abuse.”
And when fixing our focus on the Newcastle community, through her experience, exactly how prevalent is domestic violence in the town?
Dr Cooper highlights, “This is difficult to quantify as we don’t keep specific statistics, however, anecdotal reports from the doctors regularly working in the unit seem to indicate that we get these cases almost daily, particularly after-hours and on weekends.”
Furthermore, a number are repeat victims. However, Dr Cooper explains identifying these can be difficult, as different teams work in the emergency centre, so they may not always know if the patient was seen before for similar trauma-related concerns.
She adds, “We may not always be aware that the injuries were as a result of domestic violence. Unfortunately, the history provided is often not accurate, and often the abuser accompanies the patient to avoid the truth coming out.”
Looking at the long-term effects of abuse, what kind of toll does constant physical violence have on the victim’s body?
Dr Cooper explains this depends entirely on the severity and site of the injuries. However, she stresses any repeated injury takes its toll.
“Fractures may not heal in the correct position; wounds take longer to close and are at increased risk of infection; relatively minor bleeding may become catastrophic with repeated trauma.”
Additionally, she states, “Ongoing severe muscle bruising can cause kidney failure. Repeat head injuries may cause permanent brain damage, resulting in cognitive deficits and even seizures.”
Unfortunately, disability or death can also result from a single episode of domestic violence, or from multiple ongoing episodes.
As damaging as these effects are, Dr Cooper stresses that it must be remembered the psychological consequences of repeat physical violence are often more severe and long-lasting than the physical damages. She expounds, there can be depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal ideation and even suicide attempts.
It is also important to note, that sexual assault and rape can occur within a marriage or relationship, and this can result in sexually transmitted infections, as well as unwanted pregnancy.
As a prominent medical professional, Dr Cooper reminds victims that help is always available—”If you come to the emergency centre, we will assist in whatever way possible, starting with treatment of the acute problem, whether these are physical or psychological. It can be difficult for the victim to alert the staff about the actual cause of the injuries, especially if the perpetrator accompanies the patient. However, there will always be a time when one is alone with a member of staff.”
Therefore, Dr Cooper encourages victims of domestic violence to use these opportunities to alert medical staff to the truth so that they can act accordingly.
It is important to stress; medical staff will never inform the alleged abuser to this having happened.
In fact, Dr Cooper adds, “We can admit victims to hospital as a temporary means of relief, while other plans are made. We will complete any documentation required by the SAPS to open a formal case, such as a J88 form, and can contact the SAPS to assist in the emergency centre if this is required.”
The doctor reminds the community that there are multiple hotlines where help is available. The SA Government hotline can be contacted on 0800 150 150. People Against Women Abuse is a private organisation who can assist women with counselling and shelter, 011 642 4345/6.
Dr Cooper finishes off by stating, “I also wish abuse victims to know that it is never their fault and they are worthy of help, regardless of what their abuser or social circle may say. Please try to identify a person you trust, who can assist you in getting away and seeking help early.”