by Sivuyisiwe Wonci
Every day, South African newsrooms and social media platforms carry these kinds of stories. Women continue to die at the hands of their husbands, boyfriends and fiancés. When we hear these stories we ask ourselves ‘behleleni’ up until her death? ‘Uhlelele ni?’ is a question that is commonly asked women who are in abusive relationships. ‘Uhlelele ni?’ translates to why would you stay? Uhlelele ni – whilst he is beating you up? Uhlelele ni – whilst he is sexually abusing you? Uhlelele ni – whilst he is emotionally terrorizing you?
There are many anecdotal and empirical explanations as to why women stay in abusive relationships. Popular explanations range from ‘women stay because of money,’ ‘to women stay because it is the norm to be abused,’ ‘women stay because they grew up with parents who were abusive,’ ‘women stay because the abuser holds them in a psychological prison’. The list of reasons why women stay in abusive relationships is endless. Yet these explanations tend to be isolated from violence in the structure of patriarchy which produces intimate partner violence. This discussion will reflect on some of the economic and psychological explanations of why women stay in abusive relationships and locate these reasons within the structure of patriarchy.
The question of ‘uhlelele ni?’ and the various attempts to answer it, can individualize the problem of intimate partner violence in South Africa. It misses the fundamental point that intimate partner violence is all too often a result of the patriarchal system. Patriarchy by design functions on the premise that men are superior to women. Patriarchy has little regard for women and is designed to ensure that women occupy and hold particular positions in society and that these are ‘just and normal’. Women who try to step out of this or challenge the position of men can suffer from brutality and death.
It comes as no surprise that historically and in the present, the violent patriarchal system can lead to the death of women both in public and private spaces. The violent system of patriarchy is ingrained in our fiber and in our being and it is no wonder that some women, even in their homes, become casualties of intimate partner violence. In the South African context; one cannot speak of patriarchy, its violence and the social relations it produces without interrogating its interaction with race, class and capitalism. The intersection between systems of racism, capitalism and patriarchy produces unequal lived experiences for many men and women in South Africa. The interaction of these systems should not make us shy away from talking about patriarchy for what it is.
Economic explanations of intimate partner violence in South Africa suggest that women may stay in abusive relationships because of money. This explanation denies the reality that patriarchy often produces conditions of economic exclusions and alienation for women. Women can assist in building the empire of the patriarchal economy through their reproductive role of bearing children, caregiving and running homes. But they often cannot have an equal share in the economy. Even when men and women are doing the same job, the man often earns a higher salary. This explanation runs the risk of suggesting that poor black working women are the only ones who are victims of intimate partner violence. It paints poor black women as people who enter intimate relationships because of security and not merely because of love. This explanation can also portray a picture that it is only poor black men who are the perpetrators of violence against women. It situates the black man as the ultimate problem of gender-based violence and the only ones who suffer from ‘toxic masculinities’.
Anecdotal and empirical evidence has challenged the idea that women stay in abusive relationship because of security or money alone. Educated wealthy women often stay in abusive relationships. Just like any other women in the social strata, educated wealthy women’s exit to an abusive relationship is often death. People who support the idea usually argue that although educated wealthy women stay in abusive relationships their numbers are not as appalling as those for poor women. This denies the empirical evidence that in poor working communities women who find themselves in abusive relationships also work as their partners. In some cases, you find that the woman that is abused is the one holding light in the household and providing for the family whilst the partner is not working.
The psychological explanation suggests that a woman stays in abusive relationships because the man has managed to manipulate her over the years. The man holds a key to the subjection of the woman and up until a woman breaks away from this control they may remain in an abusive relationship. This view tends to center women as the only ones with the will power to break the cycle of abuse. It puts women at the center as the subject that needs to be treated. Women need to reach a state of enlightenment and consciousness in order for them to get out of an abusive relationship. This explanation assumes that if we can treat and support battered women they will somehow be able to rise up and leave abusive partners. This fails to address the limits of psychological treatment if the social context remains unchanged. Psychologically treating women who experience intimate partner violence without dismantling the same patriarchal order that produces such violence may not be effective in the long term.
The violent patriarchal order in South Africa creates a distressing state of social and psychological warfare for many women. In a patriarchal society, women are often not seen as equal human beings that are worthy of peace, love, prosperity and joy. There is also a fear expressed that no individual or collective consciousness that will be able to be reached by women to break abusive relationships as long as the societal structure functions on and implicitly supports patriarchy. Because of patriarchy, far too many women in South Africa are in an abusive relationship whether they are prepared to admit this or not. In this abusive relationship with patriarchy, women can be physically and emotionally attacked in the streets, schools, boardrooms and even in their bedrooms. The patriarchal systematic order in South Africa compels us to ask women ‘uhlelele ni?’ because of the number of women who are in an abusive, violent and fatal relationship with patriarchy.
Economic or psychological liberation of women will be challenging for women to opt out of abusive relationships until patriarchy as a systematic order is better understood and dismantled. A question that comes with the proposal of dismantling patriarchy is how? How can we find alternatives to how men and women co-exist and relate to one another peacefully? The same ‘woke’ black men who are willing to fight against racism are reluctant to do so when it comes to patriarchy. For patriarchy can benefit many of them just by virtue of being men. My answer to the question of how we can dismantle patriarchy is that we can do it the same way that we fought and continue to fight racism with tooth, soul and nail in South Africa.
To dismantle patriarchy we need to organize, institutionalize and attack. Yet before we do all of this there needs to be an agreement amongst all members of our society, men and women that women’s equality matters! That women’s bodies matter and that women’s dignity and humanity is as valuable as men’s. There can be no movement to dismantle patriarchy without the consensus agreement that women’s lives matter. We need to organize as members of society from all genders and sexualities on the basis that patriarchy as a system is founded on the oppression of women and we no longer need it. We need to institutionalize ideas, movements, policies, and norms that will create an alternative vision and understanding of society, in which all human beings can co-exist, make love, create and recreate. Feminism with its own contestations and limitations has done a great job in institutionalizing the dignity of women and writing back them to history and the present. We have something more to learn from feminism and we need to go back to its vast and different archives in imagining and creating alternative institutions to patriarchy. Attacking means ripping patriarchy and everything associated with it apart. Unfortunately attacking might mean attacking our own bodies and souls as patriarchy is ingrained in our fiber. By all means, the birth of an alternative social order might require us to bomb ourselves and others if necessary. This birth might require us to “die” a social death in order to commit to a revolution that will overthrow patriarchy and make sure there is no longer the need to ask ‘uhlelele ni?’.
Sivuyisiwe Wonci is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department at the University of South Africa. Her doctoral research focuses on health policy and health system strengthening in South Africa, using the National Health Insurance as a case study. She just started a new job at the Institute for Gender Studies at UNISA as a researcher. She holds a Master of Public Health from Montclair State University, New Jersey. She also holds a Bachelor Degree and Honors Degree in Sociology from the University of the Western Cape. She worked as a Consultant with the World Health Organization and the National Department of Health advisory team on the National Health Insurance policy. Sivuyisiwe has experience in monitoring and evaluation. She worked at the Centre for Research and Evaluation on Education and Human Services assisting in the evaluation of statewide health policy and programs in New Jersey. She has conducted research in the field of HIV/AIDS, looking at the experiences of teenagers born with HIV in a township called Nomzamo in Strand, Cape Town. She also looked at the intersection between homelessness and HIV infection amongst adults in Newark, New Jersey. Sivuyisiwe is passionate about issues relating to gender dynamics, social justice, politics, socioeconomic inequalities and indigenous knowledge health systems in South Africa