My father was the only son of an only son of an only son. He was brought up to believe that he could walk on water — simply because he was a man. He felt entitled to behave as though everyone was there to serve him and be subordinate to him.
As a father, he couldn’t connect with me and my siblings. He believed that children were to be seen and not heard. And he was incapable of providing us with affection. He was verbally, emotionally and psychologically abusive to my mother and to his children.
My mother passed away in a car accident when I was 14, and after that, we became victims of domestic violence. In fits of rage, he would go through the house with a gun, threatening to shoot us all. As you might imagine, this period of my life had a huge impact on me.
I was 18 when I left my home in the Eastern Cape to come to study in Johannesburg. I borrowed money from a relative to pursue my degree in communications, and shortly after, I met the first man I married.
He, too, was abusive — violent and aggressive. I believe I found myself in an abusive marriage because I’d had an abusive childhood. My lack of self-esteem meant that I was easily victimised. Studies have shown that girls who have absent fathers are likely to battle with their self-esteem, and are far more likely to accept abuse later in life. We think that we deserve that kind of behaviour; it’s what we’ve learnt to accept.
Having a positive relationship with a present father, on the other hand, has proven to be a preventative measure against many risks, of which gender-based violence is one.
I’m finally in a stable, happy relationship today, but it’s taken me a long time to get here. I carried a lot of resentment and anger for my father for a long time — resentment and anger that negatively affected me, not him. I didn’t speak to him for 10 years.
In 2010, I confronted him about what had happened during my childhood. While he apologised, I could see that, in his mind, he still didn’t quite believe that he’d done anything wrong. It was simply the way that he was brought up: believing that his behaviour was right, that he was entitled to be obeyed and worshipped. But I got it off my chest, and said what I needed to say.
My father passed away in 2015, and in the years before his death, we had a relatively good relationship.
Becoming a gender-based violence activist has been a huge part of my healing journey — and it has become a passion. I’ve experienced abuse first-hand. And I believe I am in a position to help others.
Studies clearly show that absent fathers, or fathers who are present but abusive, put children at greater risk of being victims of violence, including gender-based violence, later in life. And boys who grow up in these sorts of households are more likely to become perpetrators of violence.
There is no doubt that encouraging men, not just biological fathers, to become more actively and positively involved in children’s lives is one of the most important ways we can halt the cycle of gender-based violence and violence against women and children.
Unfortunately, this information isn’t widely available. People don’t understand gender-based violence, why it happens, how to prevent it, and how to heal from it. But this learning, prevention and healing is possible. If we can educate people and help them break the silence, then we can help to nurture long-lasting changes in our homes, communities and society.
Corné Davis is an Associate Professor in the Department of Strategic Communications at the University of Johannesburg. She is also an advisor to TEARS Foundation and an advocate for positive fatherhood through initiatives such as Heartlines Fathers Matter.