The sins of the father: Intergenerational transmission of Gender-Based Violence

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E have all heard the phrase ‘the sins of the father’. It is of Biblical origin but also appears in works of antiquity. It is linked to sin being passed on from one generation to the next. Children of parents, families, and communities that sin inherit the seed of sin and the intergenerational consequences it may carry. Abuse and violence are two.

Violence directed at a person because of their biological sex, gender identity, or supposed adherence to socially defined norms of masculinity and femininity is gender-based violence. It can be physical, sexual, or psychological abuse; threats; intimidation; taking away a person’s right to freedom and economic deprivation whether in public or private life. It takes many forms and can happen throughout the life cycle. Like many countries in the world, Namibia too faces strong cultural and social norms that prescribe a gender hierarchy where men are seen as superior over women and children.  This norm is also strongly supported by the subjective interpretation of religious belief systems. These norms justify the tolerance of men’s violence towards women and children. They are demonstrated in expressions of masculinity, enforcement of gender norms and the way that children are disciplined.

Gender-based violence can have intergenerational impacts by not only affecting the overall wellbeing of families and communities but can have a ripple effect and harm children’s mental and physical health. More concerning is the increase in the perception of violence as acceptable. Children who witness violence are twice as likely to become violent as adults. Globally, research shows increasing evidence between witnessing or experiencing violence as a child and later actions of violence against women in adulthood.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is one of the most common forms of violence against women and children worldwide. With increased evidence that violence against women and children often occurs in homes, it has also proved to be driven by the same factors. In later life, young boys are more likely to harm women and children if they have witnessed their mothers being abused in the home or have been abused themselves.  There is steady realisation that violence against women and violence against children are deeply entangled.

To work towards effective prevention and intervention strategies of gender-based violence, there needs to be an understanding of the way in which intergenerational violence is transferred. Some theories used in studying intergenerational transmission of family violence include those of Bandura’s Social Learning Theory and Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. 

Bandura’s Theory

This theory suggests that one learns behaviours from one’s environment as a child. The family system plays a central role in teaching and children will mirror and learn interpersonal skills from their parents. The theory easily explains why children who have witnessed intimate partner violence and experienced abuse themselves grow up to become perpetrators or victims of violence themselves in their own relationships. Violence has been taught to be a normal, appropriate, and inevitable in intimate relationships and the only way to resolve relationship problems. Any conflict tends to result in violence. Over the life cycle children never acquire the skills to resolve conflict in an effective and healthy manner, repeating the same destructive behaviours in adulthood void of behaviour showing a concern for the rights, feelings or welfare of those they are in close relationships with.

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Bowlby emphasises that the relationship between infant and caregiver is the most important factor in the future of the infant’s mental health and attachments (relationships). A child growing up in a violent home will not have sense of security and those who are supposed to be their protectors, are attackers. They are perceived by the child as dangerous, not loving and protecting. The ones they love become the ones they fear. A child will grow up to expect others to be hostile and rejecting in nature, responding in such a way that brings out abusive behaviours in others. This is the result of early parent-child relationships with abusive parents or caregivers.  Trust and closeness in later relationships will be challenging for children who experience abuse and will consequently react with hostility and anger towards others in various ways.

Impact of Intergenerational Gender-Based Violence

Witnessing or experiencing violence as a child has extended and long-lasting effects. When a child experiences violence at home, they learn to tolerate violence. There is a higher risk of suffering poor mental health, substance abuse as well as risky sexual behaviours.  They are also more at risk of behavioural problems such as aggression, trouble with the law and impaired social functioning. With the likelihood of not having empathy for others, their chances of becoming violent increases and ultimately drives intergenerational transmission. It directly impacts their relationships and abilities to be emotionally responsive parents.

Prevention is Better than Cure

The link between violence against women and violence against children needs to be recognised and brought to the surface of any strategy towards prevention and intervention.  They go hand in hand.  People do not function in isolation and taking the family system into account when strategising on prevention and interventions will lead towards more successful outcomes. 

Apart from strong systemic approaches for prevention and intervention, the provision of effective response and support to victims and perpetrators of violence needs to take priority. With consistent exposure to violence, mental health problems such as depression, suicidality and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely.

Change starts at home. With parents or caregivers being the primary source of socialisation, their role in the child’s emotional and social development becomes pivotal. Leading by example. Parenting programmes help with parenting skills teaching safer discipline strategies and conflict resolution skills. Unhealthy behaviours passed on from previous generations can be unlearned, eliminating the justification through blame “but that’s how my parents did it”. Consciously working on healthy relationships is a choice.

Other key guidelines include:

• Prevent and raise awareness of gender-based violence in schools: While Life Skills teachers play an essential role, all teachers should constantly promote the prevention of gender-based violence in schools.  Through inclusive and equal treatment of all learners, harmful gender and social norms can be countered.

• Educational programmes: Target all genders to encourage open and honest conversation about gender inequality and its consequences. This can happen in public and private settings; and how violence leads to unhealthy outcomes for all are required.

• Promote positive parenting and child management skills: Effective training programmes can be designed by NGOs, faith-based organisations and parent support groups focusing on positive parenting skills such as using positive reinforcement, applying nonviolent discipline and negotiating problem-solving strategies.

• Provide accessible and supportive healthcare and psychosocial support for families: For victims and perpetrators healthcare facilities, counselling and therapy should be of a supportive nature and easily accessible.

LifeLine/ChildLine’s Psychosocial Services to Victims and Perpetrators

Providing psychosocial services to victim and perpetrator are essential to the healing and growth of our nation. LifeLine/ChildLine Namibia is a registered Welfare Organisation and NGO whose vision is ‘safer, healthier, more resilient children, families and communities in Namibia’. The organisation operates a National Counselling Centre in Windhoek, which handles different telephone, sms, face-to-face and online counselling services for the whole of Namibia. All services are free of charge.

Operating within their scope of practice and adhering to all national laws, our counsellors are ready to listen and assist.  The call centre is open from 08:00 – 23:00 daily.  LifeLine/ChildLine Namibia is here for you. Please do not play on the lines, you block the lines for those who may be in immediate need of help!

Sources

Woollett, N., Thomson, K. (2016). Understanding the intergenerational transmission of violence. SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.106 n.11 Cape Town Nov. 2016

Stefanik, L. (2014). What are we learning about how to prevent the intergenerational transmission of GBV?https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/what-are-we-learning-about-how-prevent-intergenerational-transmission-gbv

SAST. (2018).The link between violence against women and children matters. Here’s why.  https://theconversation.com/the-link-between-violence-against-women-and-children-matters-heres-why-106942

Milton, M.A. (2020). What Are “Sins of the Father”? Understanding Generational Consequences.

https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-the-sins-of-the-father-mean-in-the-bible.html