Domestic violence against men: Using whistle-blowing to address the stigma

Dr Emmanuel Rowlands

Dr Emmanuel Rowlands

Published Jun 7, 2024


Dr Emmanuel Rowlands

Domestic violence is typically perpetrated by male partners against their female counterparts.

Though, there are cases where men are subjected to both physical and emotional abuse by their female partners.

What makes this situation particularly problematic for men is the stigma attached to being the victim of female abuse, as well as their experiences with police, courts, and healthcare personnel. The mechanism of whistle-blowing can help address this stigma.

A recent study conducted among 25 black African men residing in Johannesburg who have been subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their female partners has found that men are likely to develop several psychosocial disorders.

Most prominently, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are likely to manifest in male victims of domestic violence. These victims are also likely to develop health-risk behaviours such as alcohol abuse, hazardous sexual behaviours and, as a consequence, heightened vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The results of the study indicated that social stressors intersect with clinical disorders to cause profound suffering in male domestic abuse survivors. The narratives of many of the study’s participants indicated an intricate interplay of shame, societal stigma, and stereotypes that compound the suffering of men who identify as victims of female abuse.

One empirical example drawn out from the study is that of a participant that was subjected to abuse with weapons such as knives, sticks and steel bars. His worst experience of abuse was when his partner scalded him with hot water, which left burn scars from his face to his left arm.

He is now plagued by fear, post-traumatic stress, trauma, and has considered consuming poison to kill himself. Some of the other participants have considered relocating to avoid shame and ridicule.

With deeply ingrained stereotypes about masculinity and strength in South Africa, barriers for male victims of domestic violence persist. Men are expected to be tough and stoic, and admitting vulnerability or victimhood is seen as a sign of weakness. This makes it difficult for men to acknowledge that they are victims of abuse and thus they do not seek help. They also develop a fear that their claims will not be taken seriously, along with a likelihood that they will be subjected to secondary victimisation from the police, courts, and healthcare personnel. As a result, many men suffer in silence, trapped in a cycle of violence with nowhere to turn.

Moreover, the lack of understanding and awareness among law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and the general public further compounds the issue, leaving many male victims without the support and validation they desperately need.

A crucial component in aiding male abuse victims in coming forward could reside in addressing the stigma and ridicule they face when reporting their experiences to responsible parties. The act of whistle-blowing presents itself as a mechanism that can address such discriminatory responses to male abuse victims.

Since whistle-blowing entails reporting a perceived organisational wrongdoing to a party that can effect remedial action, it can encompass blowing the whistle on members of the police, courts and healthcare facilities that engage in discriminating against male abuse victims.

Though, whistle-blowing itself comes with stigma and retaliation that commonly results in adverse effects for the person making a disclosure. Thus, those that came forward to report on the discrimination and labelling of male abuse victims would have to do so very carefully. They could consider making an anonymous disclosure, though that could present room to question the legitimacy of the whistle-blower’s claims. In South Africa, the Protected Disclosures Act, intended to protect whistle-blowers, is inadequate and thus does not offer whistle-blowers sufficient protection.

Yet, addressing domestic violence against men requires a culture of accountability and support, particularly when those organisations intended to support abuse victims fail to recognise and respond to male victimisation with sensitivity and empathy. Whistle-blowing has proved itself effective in holding people accountable for their actions, particularly in the spate of disclosures relating to corruption and state capture in South Africa. Thus, it can aid in challenging societal norms and stereotypes held by personnel and practitioners who are the first official responders to abused survivors, paving the way for greater recognition and support for male victims.

Holding those that discriminate against male abuse victims to account would result in the reports of the abused being taken more seriously. This would empower male victims to break free from the cycle of violence.

It must be emphasised that all experiences matter – those of men and women, whistle-blowers, and any others that have been subjected to unfair discrimination and retaliation. By speaking out, supporting victims, and advocating for change, we can create a world where all survivors are supported on their journey toward healing and justice.

Rowlands is a Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Africa Centre for Evidence, at the University of Johannesburg.

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