Domestic and gender-based violence plagues South African women and children. With physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse are also endured. Women in this position often feel helpless, especially with a legal system that continues to fail abuse survivors.

Psychological trauma can severely undermine a person’s confidence, overwhelming their ability to cope. While trauma may leave us feeling powerless and fearful, it is possible to break free of abusive situations and move forward stronger.

During the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, a psychologist who helps survivors of domestic abuse shares her advice for breaking free and empowering oneself.

“While each individual’s experience of trauma and their response to it is unique, we tend to subconsciously recreate the moment of terror over and over, sometimes obviously and other times sub-consciously,” says Joanne Laskey, a clinical psychologist practicing in the COPE Therapy team at Akeso Stepping Stones mental health facility.

“Particularly in the context of an abusive relationship, the fear that repeated trauma can instil in a person can often make their situation appear so overwhelming that they feel unable to cope and helpless to break free of their situation.

“No healing can occur while you are still being abused, and often it takes a great deal of time just to recognise that one is in an abusive situation. The abused person often blames themselves, or accepts their abuser’s justification of their actions. This makes it difficult for them to see past their emotional, and often financial, dependence on the abusive individual, to the possibility of a brighter future.”

Sometimes a great deal of work is needed for an abused person to face these difficult issues and build up the confidence to make the necessary changes to remove oneself from an abusive situation, she says.

Remember the abuse is never your fault, no matter what the situation. Only you can take the necessary steps to get yourself, and in many cases your children, to safety. To break free from the fear and perceived helplessness that comes with the trauma of living in an abusive home, you need to carefully formulate a plan.

“An abusive partner is unlikely to change, and in most circumstances, your only option for self-preservation is to get out of the situation before it is too late, as the deeply disturbing rates of gender-based violence and femicide in our country demonstrate all too clearly,” she says.

Practical steps towards leaving an abusive home

– Identify support: Do you have family, friends, neighbours, a doctor, mental health professional or social worker who could assist with the practical and emotional support you need?

– Identify where you could safely go: Members of your support network may be able to provide immediate shelter if you need to leave for your safety or that of your children.

– Strategise when and how you would leave the house and get to a place of safety.

– Get together the important things you would need to leave, such as documents, clothing, medications, some money and a phone, if possible.

– Prepare yourself mentally and put your plan into action.

“All too often, people feel that extricating themselves from an abusive situation would be an insurmountable challenge. The despair of being stuck in an abusive relationship and continually re-traumatised can take a profound toll on one’s physical and mental health.”

According to Laskey, often social support, counselling or even in-patient mental health care may be helpful in addressing some of the barriers to leaving an abusive home. Therapy can provide a valuable external perspective, as it is very hard not to be judgmental of yourself when you are in an abusive situation.

“Getting to safety is part of taking back your power, and no-one but you can do this. Others can support you but the only way to heal is to walk this road yourself, and this in itself can be most empowering,” she says.

“Once you are in a place of safety you can take the time to mourn and grieve as part of processing all the emotions that come with making such an important change in your life.

“Trying to return to normal life requires breaking free of the effects the trauma has had on your behaviour because trauma disconnects us from ourselves, others and life. If trauma was experienced within a relationship, it is natural to become less trusting of others. There are skills one can develop, with the help of a therapist, to help take back control and avoid similar situations in future.

“This involves working on the behavioural aspects of overcoming vulnerability to engage in healthy relationships and other aspects of life with enjoyment, which is needed to fully heal.”

Dr Sandile Mhlongo, director of Akeso mental health facilities, encourages every person to reflect on how they may be able to support those facing or healing from gender-based violence in their own communities.

“This year’s 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children has a further chilling significance with the increase of domestic violence reported since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Many of the societal problems we face have a direct impact on our mental health and well-being, this awareness, seeking help and taking charge of your life is an important starting point towards healing.” he says.

“It is incumbent upon all of us to take action against any form of gender-based violence and violence perpetrated against children. Do not turn a blind eye to the signs of abuse and violence against women and children. Be honest with yourself and others about harmful and destructive behaviours, including substance use, and if these are affecting your life and relationships seek personal help before the problem escalates further.”

One in four women suffer some from violence during their lifetime.

If you or someone you know who suffers from domestic or gender-based violence, The Warrior Project is a free legal helpline service.

– Free Legal Helpline (LawForAll) 0860 333 353

– Free Legal Advice on WhatsApp (LawForAll) 063 603 3759

– Stop Domestic Violence Helpline (Lifeline) 0800 150 150

– Childline 0800 055 555

– Report Child Abuse and request call back: SMS ‘help’ to 31022

– Report Abuse of Persons with Disabilities: SMS ‘help’ to 31531

– HIV/Aids Helpline 0800 012 322

For more information from The Warrior Project, click here. 

Contact information for services that help abuse victims in Cape Town can be found here. 

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