When higher education increases women's risk for intimate partner violence

The case for a multipronged preventative approach to tackling gender-based violence

The socioeconomic empowerment of women is seen as critical to gender equality, the absence of which is associated with high rates of gender-based violence. However, when it comes to intimate partner violence, recent findings from the South African Social Attitudes Survey suggest that interventions to increase the financial independence of women might backfire if not accompanied by a corresponding transformation of patriarchal belief systems. By Andrea Teagle

Crowds protest gender-based violence at the parliament in Cape Town in September 2019 after the deaths of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Leighandre 'Baby Lee' Jegels, Janika Mallo and others.

Photo: Andrea Teagle

Among married women in South Africa, those with higher levels of education are significantly more likely to experience intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime, according to recent findings of the 2012 South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS). Specifically, women with some secondary education are more than twice (2.19 times) as likely to report lifetime IPV than those with only primary schooling. For those with university or college degrees, the risk is almost three (2.86) times greater.

Although education is considered a proxy for gender equality at a national level, a chapter on IPV in South African Social Attitudes: Family Matters (HSRC, 2019) showed how well-educated women in patriarchal societies might sometimes face violent backlashes from partners for inverting the gendered power dynamics. Dr Yanga Zembe, an associate professor at the University of the Western Cape, and Prof Visseho Adjiwanou from the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada, speculate that this likely occurs in relationships where the male partner is less educated or lower-earning, and so perceives the success of the woman as undermining his masculinity.

The survey also found that employed women had a greater risk of psychological violence than those who were unemployed, despite the reported public support for working women in South Africa.

Men who experience emasculation use violence to over-assert their authority, overcome feelings of inferiority and reclaim their sense of power,Zembe and Adjiwanou write.

Research on the impact of microfinance services on empowering women in other parts of the world has yielded mixed results at the relationship level. In Bangladesh, a 1996 study found a decrease in IPV, while in another study female microfinance borrowers experienced greater IPV risk. In the former study, the observed increase was attributed to an increase in the visibility of womens lives through group-based credit programmes. Therefore, understanding the local context which may differ within as well as between countries is critical to the design and implementation of effective empowerment measures.

SASAS also found that, while women in South Africa faced a significantly higher chance of physical violence at the hands of their spouses, men and women were about equally likely to report having been the victim of controlling behaviour.

Given that controlling behaviour is about demonstrating and exerting power over another,the authors write, these findings may suggest that power is becoming a contested medium in intimate relationships in South Africa. This is especially significant given that most cases of gender-based violence (GBV) occur in the home.

South Africa arguably stands at a pivotal historical juncture for gender justice. Violence against women and children has reached critical levels and women are increasingly demanding that patriarchal norms be dismantled and that perpetrators be brought to justice. In the wake of multiple murders last year, including that of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana, protestors all over the country took to the streets to demand that the government take action.

In February 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa proclaimed the necessary legislation to establish and provide resources for dedicated sexual offences courts, intended to bring justice to survivors of GBV. The new legislation makes provision for measures to improve the quality of evidence presented, increase prosecutions and minimise secondary trauma for complainants. The intention is to make it easier for survivors of GBV to report offences and to give evidence in trials as a means of deterring potential perpetrators, according to a statement released by the Presidency.

Such measures are an important component of a comprehensive strategy to address GBV. However, legislation is primarily designed to protect victims and punish offenders rather than change behaviour. Experts from the HSRC and elsewhere have argued that such reactive measures need to be accompanied by proactive interventions that address the root causes of GBV.

Understanding GBV

In the ecological model of GBV, the World Health Organization (WHO) seeks to explain the phenomenon as an intersection of factors at different levels: societal, political, relationship and individual. In South Africa, poverty and inequality, the historically sanctioned and normalised use of violence against the disempowered, intersectional discrimination, low access to mental healthcare services, and ineffectual state policies all perpetuate GBV.

Research shows that violence is often predicted by earlier exposure to violence. Within families, children exposed to IPV or neglectful or abusive parents are more likely to go on to become victims or perpetrators themselves. And, as Zembe and Adjiwanou write, IPV is also more likely to occur in poorer households and households in communities that experience high levels of violence. The elevated risk of IPV faced by coloured, and to a lesser degree, black women in South Africa, as revealed by the SASAS data, underscores the ripple effects of high rates of community-level violence and gang warfare.

The health promotion model of GBV posits that various resources help people to deal better with significant life stresses, reducing the likelihood that they perpetrate or experience violence. Such resistance resourcesinclude income, self-esteem, mental wellness, and social and cultural capital.

In their 2013 paper outlining the model, Dr Navindhra Naidoo of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and Dr Lubna Nadvi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal argue that post-incidence interventions miss potential perpetrators and distract from all that perpetuates a culture of GBV.

South African men of all demographic profiles have become central to the perpetuation of the problem of GBV and it is crucial that they be targeted for intervention measures,they write.

Interventions for tackling GBV

One way of increasing potential perpetratorsresistance resources might be by mental-health outreach programmes that target men, although more research is needed to determine whether this is effective in decreasing IPV. A mental-health intervention aimed at men was recently launched in Kenya. The programme modified the evidence-based WHO Problem Management Plus programme to include an alcohol abuse component, after engaging with community members to identify the main drivers of violence against women.

Local interventions that have been shown to be effective include community-based programmes that engage men and women on gender norms and constructs, and skills training and microfinance services to empower women.

As the SASAS data suggests, efforts to empower women socioeconomically are likely to be most effective when accompanied by interventions that prompt critical examination and the dismantling of patriarchal norms. One such intervention is the combined Stepping Stones and Creating Futures community-based programme, which involves both learning sessions around sexual health and GBV, and workshops to improve employment and earning capacity. The programme has been shown to shift gender norms and reduce womens experience of IPV, as Dr Nwabisa Shai and Dr Yandisa Sikweyiya of the Medical Research Council report. Such an approach has significant potential to help reduce GBV if scaled up to national level.

In their 2013 review of public health approaches to GBV, Shai and Sikweyiya also highlight family-level interventions that aim to improve childcaregiver relationships, such as the Sinovuyo Caring Families Programme. These interventions, which include mental-wellness components for caregivers, might have important long-term impacts on IPV, as research suggests that how children relate to their caregivers early on shapes their ability to form healthy relationships later in life.

At a policy level, South Africa has some of the most comprehensive gender equality laws in the world and has made significant strides towards greater female political representation. However, Zembe and Adjiwanou argue, a critical gap pertains to policy directed at the private sphere, where most gender-based violence takes place.


Andrea Teagle, science writer at the HSRC