Does counselling ease GBV burden?

Gibson Mhaka
NARRATING her ordeal at the Bulawayo Civil Court while seeking a protection order against her husband of 10 years Edward Moyo, a teary Prim Moyo (32) from Makokoba suburb said ever since she got married, her husband  physically, sexually, verbally and emotionally abuses her.

Failing to hold back tears, Prim claimed Edward calls her names and forces her to have sex in positions she does not want and if she refuses, he brutally assaults her with a sjambok.

She told the presiding magistrate: “He stays out very late without telling me and whenever I ask him where he has been, he turns violent and assaults me. Before we married, he was extremely charming and always kind to me and I didn’t suspect that he is a violent person.

“For the 10 years we have been married he has been abusing me and it is now time for me to move on with my life without him as I can no longer stand his constant abuse. I want this court to protect me by granting an order that bars him from communicating with me or coming to where I am staying,” said Prim with tears streaming down her cheeks.

In response Edward did not dispute his wife’s accusations. He quickly apologised before he pulled a shocker saying if Prim refused to come back to their matrimonial home, he would commit suicide at her new place of residence.

The magistrate said: “From his response, can’t you see that he is remorseful?  Can you give him a second chance?

Remember that he is still your husband and the father of your children and on that basis I cannot grant an order to stop him from communicating with you or come to your place of residence.

“What I will do for now is to grant an interim order which compels him (Edward) not to physically, verbally, sexually and emotionally abuse you or threaten you in any way while I also refer both of you for counselling for four weeks.

Counselling can help you as an estranged couple to strengthen your relationship and promote mutual understanding.”

Prim’s chilling case is however, not an isolated incident but a widespread indication of how domestic violence survivors are at a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse or stress-related mental health conditions if they do not quickly receive counselling.

The case is also significant because it highlights the unconstructive role some men play in perpetuating the subjugation of women despite the equality enshrined in the constitution.

This is so because domestic violence is an extremely traumatising experience and the emotional scars associated with this abuse can often outlast the physical impact. Survivors can feel disconnected from the rest of the world if they do not receive counselling.

Since domestic violence is undoubtedly a controversial and complex issue that has also captured the attention of professional helpers, advocacy groups, pastoral counsellors, medical personnel, law enforcement personnel and lawmakers, the question is can counselling really help or treat victims of domestic violence?

In separate interviews counsellors who spoke to B-Metro said counselling provided a safe and confidential environment for survivors to express their feelings, thoughts and fears. They said counselling could help survivors deal with their remaining anxiety and find ways to relieve that stress.

Sithembiso Ndiweni, a counsellor with Emthonjeni Women’s Forum said counselling helped victims of domestic violence restore self-esteem and make informed decisions adding that it also helped reduce the victim’s feelings of isolation as well as to start looking at the abuse in the relationship as something that was not their fault.

“Counselling is helpful to victims of gender-based violence. It helps both the victim and perpetrator of domestic violence to understand their behavioural patterns and acknowledge them and find the way forward to solve their problems.

“It is important to note that during counselling it is not the counsellor who suggests the solutions but the client. The duty of the counsellor is just to identify the source of behavioural patterns while the client or the victim will be the one who explores or makes the final decision.

“After counselling the victim and the perpetrator of domestic violence can learn how to cope with the emotional trauma that is often left behind even after they have left an abusive relationship. For example we can have a couple whose relationship has irretrievably broken down but counselling can help them resolve children related issues.

“As with clients referred to us from the courts it is very difficult to assess them or see the benefits because we cannot make a follow-up to see how are they are coping unlike walk-in clients who come voluntarily and can afford us the opportunity to come to their places of residence. With the courts counselling is mandatory and the parties or the other party sometimes may just come to fulfill the order by the magistrate not really realising the benefits of counselling,” she said.

She further said counsellors also helped victims of domestic violence to process traumatic memories or experiences for them to move on.

A Bulawayo magistrate who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons said counselling was important as abusers may also benefit from domestic abuse therapy by learning how to recognise triggers, manage anger and stop blaming others for their failures and shortcomings.

“It is not that when we refer couples for counselling we strictly want them only to save their marriages but counselling helps victims of domestic abuse to see the pattern of violence in the relationship and develop a safety plan.

“This is so because victims and survivors of domestic violence struggle with self-esteem, anxiety, fear, and post-traumatic stress that can impact every area of their lives, and counselling can address these kinds of mental health issues.

“When we refer couples whether on separation or not for counselling we also want them to build upon their strengths and minimise negative beliefs about themselves. It is mandatory for them to attend those counselling sessions. We usually refer them to organisations such as Musasa Project, Contact Family Counselling Centre and Emthonjeni Women’s Forum among others where they are getting free services. Failure to attend those sessions as ordered by court the parties risk being arrested and charged for contempt of court,” said the magistrate.

It is also important to note that victims of gender-based violence need counselling in order to move past their traumatic experiences because if left untreated they could carry the emotional and physical scars to their children.

According to a study by the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development in conjunction with Gender Links at least 68 percent of domestic violence victims are women. This is not however, to say that men are also not victims of domestic violence as it is difficult for them to know who to approach and share their feelings with, for fear of misjudgment and lack of trust.

Pastor Nkosana Khanye of Brethren in Christ Church in Bulawayo said pastoral counselling was also important to survivors of domestic violence as it helped them to detach themselves from the partner’s violent behaviour.

“Anyone can experience domestic violence, regardless of age, religion, sexuality, gender, race, or class and domestic violence can happen in any kinds of relationship. But as pastors we make the victims appreciate their situation and identify what is the challenge from each spouse leading them to properly come up with their possible solutions.

“As men of God we are also fully aware that churches have a role to play to end gender-based violence.  Part of our counselling is to see that our clients or victims should have it to forgive and forget,” said Pastor Khanye.