I grew up in a country where female subjugation is too often justified as reflecting ‘traditions’ and abuse can become normalised
As the United Nations launched its 16-day worldwide campaign to combat violence against women on Sunday, I was reminded of how, while it is a global problem, it is one that leaves women in developing countries particularly vulnerable.
A UN report shows women in Africa are most at risk of violence. In Nigeria where I grew up, 23% of women have been victims of physical or sexual violence committed by a previous husband. While many incidents of domestic violence go unreported, in a country of 194 million people, even this 23% figure translates into millions of women suffering physical and sexual violence.
When they complained about abuse, they were told they must have done something to ‘disrespect’ their husbandThe Guardian
In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, 22.3% of women aged between 15 and 49 reported experiencing physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner within a 12-month period. So what are some of the unique challenges faced by African women on this front?
A friend of mine recently went through the hellish experience of trying to free herself from a violent husband. This involved being advised by her own family to stick with him because he was affluent. “He can afford to take care of you and the children. If you leave him, you’re condemning yourself and your children to hardship,” she was told. Sadly, this is all too common advice in a society that offers no social safety net or well-functioning justice system to ensure women cannot simply be thrown out on the streets (with their children) by an angry partner.
While poverty affects both genders in sub-Saharan Africa, it affects women more: 122 women aged 25 to 34 live in extreme poverty for every 100 men of the same age. For such women, the decision on whether to leave a violent partner would involve practical issues of food and shelter for herself and her children. However, the problem is much more than just economic. I also have friends who are middle-class professionals yet tolerated years of domestic abuse.
In their cases, when they complained to their families that their husband was abusing them, they were usually told they must have done something to “disrespect” him. While Nigeria is a multicultural society comprised of hundreds of ethnic groups, each with their own traditional value system, what they all have in common is a view of the male as an authority figure who deserves automatic “respect” from his wife. This involves the expectation she will regularly acknowledge her subordinate position to him in the household.
If he is abusive, it is thus often attributed to the woman not playing her role properly, not being a “good wife”. When one of my friends who spent many years in the UK before marrying and relocating to Nigeria complained to her family about how her husband was treating her, she was told she had “spent too long living among white people where everything is upside down and the women control the men”. Female subjugation can be justified as reflecting “African traditions”, conveniently ignoring values like basic respect and equal treatment for all humans. Nigerian women, even those who are better off financially, are thus disadvantaged in an unabashedly patriarchal society that does little to acknowledge their rights.
One issue that is often grossly under-appreciated is that tolerant attitudes towards domestic violence have a domino effect on society, producing adults traumatised by childhood experiences of seeing their father regularly abuse their mother. How does a society that lets its children witness such consequence-free abuse expect them to grow up fair-minded sensitive adults?
Non-governmental organisations combating violence against women do their best, but the harsh realities of life in a society with endemic poverty, a nonexistent social safety net and weak formal mechanisms for safeguarding the vulnerable, compel too many women to make unfortunate choices for themselves and their children.
Meanwhile, many Nigerians have been desensitised to the damaging effects of violence against women due to their own childhood experiences. Domestic abuse now needs to be robustly denormalised. Nigerian women need economic empowerment, but they also need cultural empowerment. This would benefit not only women but society as a whole – including, importantly, the future of any society, its children. Eliminating all forms of abuse against women is what gives credence to societies truly committed to decency and basic human rights. Anything else is an exercise in societal self-harm.
- Sede Alonge is a Nigerian writer and lawyer