Does the abused become the abuser?
Gender-based violence is a pervasive and complex social problem affecting millions worldwide. It encompasses all acts of violence against people because of their gender identity or gender, including physical, sexual and emotional violence. Gender-based violence is a widespread problem affecting people of all genders and ages, especially women and girls. One of the most common and damaging myths about gender-based violence is that those who have been abused are likelier to become perpetrators.
The origins of the cycle of violence theory can be traced back to the 1970s, one of the most influential studies being that of Lenore Walker, who developed the concept of the cycle of violence. This suggests that people who have been abused, particularly in childhood, are more likely to abuse themselves. This idea is often used to explain the prevalence of gender-based violence and why it can be difficult for people to break free from abuse in relationships. Walker’s study found that abused women often experienced repeated escalating tension, explosive violence, and reconciliation (Walker, 1979). Other researchers have highlighted the role of patriarchy and gender inequality in perpetuating cycles of abuse. In many African societies, women and girls are marginalized and disempowered, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. This can lead to a cycle of abuse in which women who have experienced violence use violence to assert their power and control. However, recent research suggests that the cycle of abuse is not as simple as once thought.
One of the most prominent African scholars to address this issue is South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. In her work, she argues that there is a strong link between experiencing trauma and becoming a perpetrator of violence (Gobodo-Madikizela, 2009). This is because trauma can result in a loss of empathy and an inability to recognize the impact of one’s actions on others. She also notes that perpetrators of violence often have a history of being abused themselves, suggesting that a cycle of abuse needs to be broken. According to a 2019 meta-analysis, while there is a correlation between being abused and becoming an abuser, the relationship is not as strong as previously believed (Assink, 2019). Other studies have found that individuals who have been abused are no more likely to become abusers than those who have not experienced abuse (Kaufman & Zigler, 1987). These findings suggest that the cycle of violence may not be a reliable explanation for why gender-based violence occurs.
Since Walker’s study, the cycle of violence theory has been widely accepted and applied to many types of abuse, including child and sexual violence. However, the concept has been criticized for being overly simplistic and ignoring the complex social, cultural, and psychological factors contributing to gender-based violence. For example, research has found that individuals exposed to violence in their communities or who have experienced other forms of trauma are more likely to become abusers than those who have not (Holt, Buckley, & Whelan, 2008).
Despite criticism of the cycle of violence theory, it remains a popular explanation for why gender-based violence occurs. This can have negative consequences for victims of violence, who may feel stigmatized and responsible for their experiences. In addition, the theory of the cycle of violence can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes and perpetuate the notion that violence is inherent in particular communities or cultures. Similarly, Nigerian sociologist Jacob Olupona has studied the relationship between trauma and violence in African societies. He argues that the trauma of colonialism and slavery has contributed to a culture of violence in Africa, as traumatized people often seek to regain power and agency through violence. Olupona notes that traditional African cultures historically had mechanisms for conflict resolution and violence prevention, but these mechanisms have been weakened by colonialism and modernization (Olupona, 2004).
Preventing abuse requires a holistic approach considering the historical, cultural and structural factors contributing to violence. This means addressing issues such as gender inequality, trauma and the erosion of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. It also means providing support and resources to abuse victims and addressing the root causes of violence. Whether victims of abuse become perpetrators themselves is a complex and differentiated question that needs to be carefully considered. Scholars have made significant contributions to this field, highlighting the role of trauma, patriarchy, and cultural factors in perpetuating cycles of violence. By taking a holistic approach to addressing abuse in African communities, we can work to break these cycles and create safer and more equal societies for all.
Assink, M., van der Put, C. E., Meeuwsen, M. W., de Jong, N. M., Oort, F. J., Stams, G. J. J., & Hoeve, M. (2019). Risk factors for child sexual abuse victimization: A meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 145(5), 459.
Gobodo-Madikizela, P., & Van der Merwe, C. N. (Eds.). (2009). Memory, narrative and forgiveness: Perspectives on the unfinished journeys of the past. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Holt, S., Buckley, H., & Whelan, S. (2008). The impact of exposure to domestic violence on children and young people: A review of the literature. Child abuse & neglect, 32(8), 797–810.
Kaufman, J., & Zigler, E. (1987). Do abused children become abusive parents?. American journal of orthopsychiatry, 57(2), 186-192.
Olupona, J. K. (Ed.). (2004). Beyond primitivism: indigenous religious traditions and modernity. Psychology Press.
Walker, L. E. (1979). Battered women: A psychosociological study of domestic violence.