Trauma, men and mental health

Andrew Gibbs on men and intimate partner violence in informal settlements in South Africa

Participant acting a scene

Men’s use of violence against women is driven by gender inequalities, and men’s attempts to maintain power over women. Yet men also experience exceedingly high levels of trauma themselves. Despite people connecting these two for many years and suggesting that men’s experiences of trauma increase their use of violence against women, research on this has remained qualitative. In a new, exploratory, analysis the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures [1]team use quantitative data to unpick how men’s experiences of trauma shape and drive their use of violence.

Working in urban informal settlements in Durban, South Africa, the Stepping Stones and Creating Futures team were acutely aware of the generalized high levels of violence that young women and men experience in their daily lives. The study found that men living in urban informal settlements do experience a high level of trauma in their lives: 25% of men in the study reported witnessing the murder of a family member of friend, 43% had witnessed an armed attack, and just over half (52%) had been robbed at knife or gunpoint.

But how does this impact on their use of violence against women? We used structural equation modeling to explore the pathways through which these experiences of trauma led to increased IPV perpetration. We found three pathways for this relationship. First, there is a direct relationship between these two factors – men who experience trauma are more likely to use violence. Second, men’s gender inequitable masculinities are incredibly important in their perpetration of violence, the experience of trauma led to men holding more inequitable masculinities and this then led to greater use of violence. Third, men who experienced trauma had greater mental health challenges, including depression and use of alcohol. These mental health challenges increased men’s perpetration of violence.

So what does this mean? First, men’s gender inequitable masculinities remain central to any analysis of men’s use of violence. The analysis clearly demonstrated that this is an important driver of violence. Second, the importance of traumatic experiences cannot be discounted in understanding men’s use of violence. This is not to justify violence at all, but to recognize that violence begets violence, and an important component of working to reduce violence against women, must be to reduce the overall levels of violence and trauma within any community. Finally, interventions working to reduce men’s use of violence need to think about how to work on improving men’s mental health and reducing their use of alcohol.

Overall, working to reduce IPV by men needs to think about the multi-level components driving IPV. Transforming men’s gender norms needs to be the main component of effective prevention interventions, but these need to be combined with wider interventions to reduce overall levels of community violence and support men’s mental health.

[1] Stepping Stones and Creating Futures is a programme which aims to decrease the rate of intimate partner violence in urban informal settlements in South Africa via interactive and participatory peer-led sessions in which participants reflect on gender norms, conflict in relationships and developing livelihoods strategies.



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