“When you are a child, when your family are messing with you, you don’t know right from wrong. But when you grow up, you recognise that there’s a wrong and a right, that there’s problems”.
This is a comment from a man whom I interviewed in a South African prison. He is currently serving a life sentence for the rape of a two-year-old toddler, a crime he committed at the age of 19 years. He raped the toddler while drunk, and very angry with her mother, who he wanted to “punish”.
He was one of 10 men I have interviewed, at length, to try to understand what happened during their lives that made them behave so violently towards very young children.
Discussing rape, and the rape of very young children particularly, evokes understandable and powerful emotions in many people; calls for the death penalty in such cases is also understandable.
But research tells us that the death penalty is not a deterrent against violent crime; and comments from the convicted rapists I interviewed suggest that the death penalty will, potentially, exacerbate an already dangerous situation for the victims of sexual violence.
If we are serious about lowering the rates of sexual crime in our country, we need to understand why some men, who were once innocent children themselves, behave so violently. We also need to understand that the use of violence is a behaviour that is learnt over time. If we understand the “right from wrong” in many children’s lives, and how violent behaviour is learnt as a result of being witness to and subjects of violence, surely we can take preventive action?
It starts during childhood, and “when your family are messing with you”. For this man, while still a child, this included having no contact, ever, with his father; seeing his mother frequently beaten by older male relatives and boyfriends; witnessing sexual activity in overcrowded living conditions; living each day surrounded by negative role models in the form of drunken, abusive, disrespectful and violent men; and suffering regular beatings from his mother, family, community members and school teachers.
Research shows that 63% of South African children grow up without their fathers. However, many children have mixed feelings about their relationships with their fathers, including the men in my study. Their fathers were “physically and emotionally absent” and would not, or could not, respond to their children’s natural needs for love, attention, dignity and care.
The men I interviewed also described how, as children, they witnessed their mothers being beaten frequently. “My father beat my mother when there was no meat,” one man told me.
Abundant research reflects how children exposed to violence in the home, without intervention, will probably abuse their intimate partners. The men in my study explained how they “corrected” their girlfriends, by “beating them, disciplining them”, and said that “To beat somebody, you show her love”. And so the cycle of violence continues.
Beating a child is also a potential trigger for violent adult behaviours. Many children are beaten by often drunk and angry parents who vent their frustrations about the world on their children; the long term effects of beating can be very serious.
When a child is beaten, he learns to suppress his feelings for fear of further violence or ridicule. For some children, being beaten by someone they love, and on whom they depend, can have consequences similar to other traumatising events. Children, during and after beatings, are left helpless, powerless and humiliated.
Frequent beatings can result in children suppressing their positive feelings, including empathy. Empathy inhibits violence. When children’s empathy is constantly eroded, their capacity for aggressive behaviour and violence increases. The long term effects include the use of violence to resolve conflict; it perpetuates the belief that might is right and the use of violence in adult intimate relationships.
These were the experiences of the 19-year-old rapist I spoke with. Violence, for him, was a learnt behaviour.
What might have changed the course of this young man’s life, and others like him, who grow up surrounded by abuse, neglect, violence and abandonment?
Just one person who showed him love and concern, who modelled better behaviours, and who did not beat him when he asked for food or made a silly mistake. Positive role models, whether they are older male relatives, teachers, religious leaders or community members, can change the trajectory of a vulnerable child’s life. Sounds simple. Yet it’s clear that too many South Africans live lives in which there is no one to share mutual love and respect with or learn right and wrong from.
– Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.