Gender-based violence  threat to mental health One in three women worldwide has experienced some form of gender-based violence and over 40 percent of women in Zimbabwe have experienced sexual or gender-based violence.


As discussed in previous articles, mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community. 

Harmful acts that are perpetrated based on one’s gender such as intimate partner violence, rape, sexual assault and sexual coercion will sadly hinder our ability to reach our full potential, cope with life’s challenges and be part of a community with others. 

One in three women worldwide has experienced some form of gender-based violence and over 40 percent of women in Zimbabwe have experienced sexual or gender-based violence at some point in their lives. 

Two in every five boys worldwide have experienced sexual abuse and one in 10 young men in Zimbabwe report having experienced sexual violence as a child. 

Gender-based violence is thus a serious threat to mental health and well-being in our families and communities. 

How does GBV affect mental health?

Gender-based violence can have a devastating impact on physical and psychological well-being. 

In addition to the toll on physical health through injuries, physical aggression, sexual abuse, verbal or emotional abuse, particularly in the home, can have mental health consequences. 

Exposure to abuse can result in: 

 Anxiety, stress and worry, poor concentration, being on edge, feeling numb, feeling angry. 

 Depression, characterised by persistent sadness or irritability, lack of motivation and drive, lack of energy, low self-esteem, feeling helpless or powerless, feeling hopeless and at its worst thoughts about death and dying as a solution. 

 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a persistent anxiety in reaction to a life-threatening trauma which can happen in many cases of gender-based violence and sexual violence. PTSD symptoms can continue several months or even years after the initial traumatic event or events. If we are experiencing PTSD we may re-experience the trauma through flashbacks or intrusive memories and nightmares; a tendency to avoid any reminders of the trauma; avoiding talking about the trauma or going back to the place of trauma and heightened sense of alertness to possible danger. 

 Shame and low self-esteem: Sexual abuse and sexual exploitation particularly in childhood may result in a great sense of shame and often goes unreported because of this, particularly if the perpetrator is a family member. Later in life those abused in childhood may struggle to form meaningful romantic relationships as adults. 

 Learned helplessness: Persistent abuse can result in one feeling so powerless and trapped in the abusive situation that they give up hope of escaping it or being able to change it. This can lead to a continued cycle of abuse despite attempts by loved ones to help the victim of the abuse to escape it. 

 Alcohol and substance abuse: Those experiencing abuse or have been abused in the past may struggle with abusing alcohol and substances as they try and cope with the emotional pain.

 Becoming a perpetrator: Children who grow up witnessing abuse may eventually become perpetrators of gender-based violence, sadly perpetuating the cycle of abuse. 

How does mental health influence gender-based violence?

The aggression seen in gender-based violence and intimate partner violence may be the result of untreated mental health challenges. 

Uncontrolled rage, anger and poor ability to control one’s anger can result in gender-based violence. 

Anger sometimes is a symptom of underlying untreated depression and anxiety in the perpetrator of gender-based violence. 

Pathological jealousy and the need to coerce, control and dominate one’s partner can also lead to abuse in relationships and in the home. Abuse of alcohol and substances is a common risk factor leading to sexual and gender-based violence. 

What can one do to help someone who is experiencing or has experienced gender-based violence?

We can all be part of the solution to the challenges of gender-based violence, first by not turning a blind eye to it. We must interrupt abuse where we discover it and assist those affected. We must also address the social and cultural factors in our families and communities that lead to gender-based violence. When faced with someone who has been traumatised:

 Ensure safety and provision of basic needs like clothing, shelter and food

 Treat the person with dignity and respect. 

 Offer a private area to talk, listen attentively, remain calm, be patient. 

 Acknowledge the pain and trauma that is being experienced. 

 Help the individual identify their strengths and how they have helped themselves before in their life. 

 Encourage good coping strategies
 . . . sleep, eating regularly, talking about how they are feeling. 

 Discourage social withdrawal or isolation and the use of drugs or alcohol to cope. 

 Link the individual with services for follow up care. 

As we continue to demystify mental health and well-being, it is essential that we address gender-based violence as a major cause of mental ill health. As we observe the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, we can reflect:

 as a possible victim of gender-based violence, could I be suffering from mental health consequences of some form of GBV, am I coping with the consequences of sexual or gender-based violence in a healthy way, do I need help to heal and recover emotionally?

 as a possible perpetrator of gender-based violence, do I have a problem with uncontrolled rage and anger, do I struggle with jealousy and an uncontrollable need to coerce, control and dominate my partner or spouse, do I have an alcohol or drug use problem, do I need to reach out and get help before it is too late? 

If you think that you or someone you know may be struggling with mental health problems as a result of gender-based violence, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help. 

l Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe (AHFoZ) article written by Dr Chido Rwafa- Madzvamutse, Consultant Psychiatrist. Feedback: +263714987729;; [email protected]

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