Abuse can have serious psychological impact on victims

Domestic and sexual violence against women and children remains a major cause for concern

Wednesday, November 21 2018

Abuse takes many forms and it can happen to men, women or children in the workplace, school, home or social situations. Despite South Africa’s annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, domestic and sexual violence remain a major cause for concern, given the shocking statistics.

Domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour where one family member tries to gain or maintain control over another. Sexual abuse is any unwanted sexual activity where the abuser uses force, makes threats or takes advantage of their victim without consent.

A 2018 report by Statistics South Africa, ‘Crime against Women in South Africa’,  revealed, apart from the horrifying incidence of rape, that 250 out of every 100 000 women were victims of sexual abuse. A surprising finding was that 2,5% of women believe men are justified in beating women.1

“The most common types of abuse are physical, sexual and emotional (or psychological) abuse,” says Hein Hofmeyr, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Nelspruit. “Lesser known types of abuse include economic or financial abuse, dating violence, stalking and cyber or social media stalking.”

Abuse in South Africa
Most cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse in South Africa go unreported, according to Hofmeyr, which is why detailed statistics are lacking. “According to the South African Medical Research Council (MRC) more women are killed by their partner or ex-partner in South Africa than in any other country in the world,” he adds. “Abuse experienced at the hand of intimate partners is the most common type of violence, and the leading cause of death among South African women. The incidence is shockingly high: every eight hours a woman dies because of intimate partner abuse.”2

Hofmeyr says research indicates that 40% of men have reported hitting their partners and one in four has confessed to raping a woman. According to the Minister of Police, General Bheki Cele, there have been 124 256 rape cases reported in the last three years. “The MRC states that only 2% of rapes are reported. It’s then safe to assume that the number of rape cases is closer to two million per year. What is even more concerning is that General Cele said 41% of reported rapes were committed against children. It’s quite apparent that we desperately need activism to create awareness about the need to put a stop to women and child abuse.”2

“One of the reasons for the high rate of domestic and sexual abuse is lack of respect for the law,” Hofmeyr says. “That’s a result of South Africa’s history and the way that crime was addressed in the Apartheid era. Also, we live in an unequal society, and people with few resources are taken advantage of by perpetrators who believe they will get away with their crimes. There is little trust in the police system and abusers most likely think they will not be reported or, if they are reported, that they will not be prosecuted.

Educational psychologist, Tammy Epstein, believes part of the problem lies with absent fathers or absent role models. When boys are raised without a father or a father figure, she says, there is a breakdown in the family unit, which may lead to adverse effects on the psychological development of boys.3

The psychological effects of abuse
There is no “correct” way for victims to respond to or feel about abuse, Hofmeyr says. “In the beginning, the victim may be in denial. People who are abused also experience confusion, fear, hopelessness, helplessness and shame.”

Other psychological effects on the victim may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Low self-esteem and low self-confidence
  • Depression or depressive symptoms
  • Suicidal thoughts and even attempted suicide
  • Guilt feelings, and believing the abuse is their fault or that it is deserved
  • Sleeping difficulties such as insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Alcohol or substance abuse or addiction
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Loneliness

What are the signs of abuse?
Hofmeyr says people who are experiencing some of the psychological effects of abuse should consider their situation carefully to help determine whether their relationships are healthy or not.

“Ask yourself whether your partner is being excessively controlling. Are they monitoring and keeping track of everything you do? Do they demand to know your phone and social media passwords? Do they insist that you reply to their messages immediately? Do they prevent you from seeing your friends or family? Do they object to you going out without them, and even to you going to work or school?

“This type of controlling behaviour may lead your partner to become jealous or angry. They might have a quick temper, and accuse you of cheating. They might attempt to control how you spend your money, how you use your medication or practise birth control, and they may make most or all of your decisions for you.”

He explains that abusive partners may also try to put you down by insulting you, humiliating you, destroying the things you care for, and blaming you for their abusive behaviour. Physical signs of abuse could also include physically hurting you or threatening to hurt you, your loved ones, or themselves whenever you upset them or try to stand up to them.

Sexual abuse could be committed by a stranger or by your intimate partner and it includes any person trying to force you to have sex or other sexual or intimate activity.

Seeking help in abusive situations
Taking the decision to leave an abusive relationship is often the most difficult part. Victims feel confusion, guilt or self-blame, and isolation or withdrawal from their support network.

“You might even believe that your partner will change, or they may promise they will seek help for their abusive behaviour,” cautions Hofmeyr. “If the abuse is repetitive and your abuser or partner has not changed their behaviour, your safety becomes the only thing that should matter to you.”

He stresses that it is important to remember that you are not to blame in any way. Everyone deserves to be safe, happy and to be treated with respect. There are people willing and able to help you.

“Start by confiding in a trustworthy friend or relative,” he adds. You can also contact your doctor, social worker, psychologist or counsellor. Getting out of the abusive relationship is the first step. After that, you can start dealing with abuse-related difficulties, such as coping with the traumatic memories, depression or anxiety related symptoms, any addictions, sexual or intimacy issues, anger problems and any other factors or symptoms that are affecting your daily functioning. Although you might feel trapped, helpless and hopeless, know that many other women and children have gone through the same process and you are not alone. Reach out and talk to someone.”

If you are a victim of abuse and need help for the psychological impact it has made on you, professional assistance is available at Akeso’s network of private psychiatric hospitals, in a safe and caring environment. Contact 0861 4357 87.

1. Crime against women in South Africa: An in-depth analysis of the Victims of Crime Survey data, 2018. Statistics South Africa. Available from:
2. Shocking stats reveal 41% of rapes in SA are against children. The South African. May 18, 2018 Available from:
3. The growing epidemic of domestic violence in South Africa. The South African College of Applied Psychology. Jul 20, 2018. Available from:

About the Akeso Group:
Akeso is a group of private in-patient psychiatric hospitals, and is part of the Netcare Group. Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and addictive conditions.
Please visit, email [email protected], or contact us on 011 301 0369 for further information. In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 435 787 for assistance.