Dr Amelia Kleijn, a researcher and an independent social worker in private practice, presented her findings after conducting a series of in-depth interviews, over three years, with ten men in maximum-security prisons around South Africa, all of whom were serving long sentences for raping children younger than three.
The discussion, which took place on the Auckland Park Kingsway Campus in the Humanities Common Room, explored the men’s psychosocial histories, and the factors that compelled them to behave so violently towards particularly young children. Dr Kleijn’s findings include, amongst others, that these men experienced childhood without positive role models or mentors in their lives, reflecting their lack of social and community cohesion; that these perpetrators’ rape of young children, was motivated by the need for revenge against men and women who were not necessarily related to the young victims; and that these men’s childhoods were associated with extreme forms of maltreatment.
These are some of Dr Kleijn’s views about men who rape babies in our society:
“My mother had many frustrations. She was short tempered. If she hit you, she hit you.” … “My father was very angry sometimes and then he could kill you if he’s getting cross”. These are some of the childhood recollections of convicted rapists. I interviewed these and other men, in prisons, to try and understand what compelled them to behave so violently towards particularly young children. The men’s childhoods were very similar, with repeated recollections of terrible maltreatment from the hands of their parents and others. Their role models were abusive, violent, often drunk, bullies. Account after account reflected what had gone so terribly wrong in these men’s lives, with terrible outcomes for a particularly vulnerable group in our society – children under the age of three.
I understand that the topic of rape is highly emotive. I also understand that the rape of particularly young children evokes particularly powerful emotions for many. The reality is that rapists too, were children. If we choose to realise what can go so wrong in some children’s lives, we can move beyond anger and outrage, and prevent vulnerable children from becoming adults with very violent behaviours.
Rape is a complex crime with many causes. However, there are common features in many rapists’ childhood histories. These include frequent beatings from parents, older relatives, teachers, and members of the community; exposure to violence at home, at school and in communities; dysfunctional parental relationships; and the absence of caring adults, positive role models or mentors.
Another feature of rapists’, and other violent offenders’, childhoods is the witness of their mothers’ abuse at the hands of fathers or partners. These children, without some sort of intervention, will, in all likelihood, grow into adults with violent behaviours. This was very evident in my conversations with the men who participated in my study. They told me how they “corrected their girlfriends, by beating them, disciplining them”, and that “To beat somebody, you show her love”. And so the “cycle of violence” continues , in every sphere of life, inevitably and cruelly thrust upon the next generation.
The childhood histories of violent men constantly highlight that violence is a learnt behaviour. Is it therefore not time for many of us to seriously re-think some of our teachings to children? That many of us are teaching children about violence when they are only surrounded by abusive, domineering and possessive men, as negative role models, who fail to recognise the rights of others, and subjected to beatings? Nelson Mandela wrote that, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
Whilst hitting a child often stops socially inappropriate behaviours in the short term, it is the long term effects that are far more serious. These include the use of violence as a way to resolve conflict, that “might is right”, and the use of violence in later life. The comments above from convicted rapists reflect this. However, this does not mean that children can live their lives without boundaries, and consequences, when behaviour is inappropriate. Positive parenting and the reinforcement of acceptable behaviours are far healthier ways to guide children, and role model better behaviours, and help children to grow up as well-functioning adults.
However, the reality is that millions of men in South Africa and beyond are frequently beaten. And have many negative role models in their lives. And yet these men do not rape and beat women and children. Research from organisations such as the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) demonstrates that when role models, such as teachers, community members and leaders, older male relatives, and other mentors, who care about children, show love and concern, and model better behaviours, can change the trajectory of many children’s lives. Or men who provide for their families, and not just financially, but give their partners and children love, safety, respect and dignity. Men that children look up to, respect, and copy their behaviour.
So what kind of role models are we?
This Op Ed by Dr Amelia Kleijn was originally published in The Star newspaper