Still from a Nollywood movie shows a husband beating his wife while a neighbour looks on.
Violence against women is a problem all over the world – regardless of education, status and location. According the UN’s 2010 report on Women in the World, most of the physical, sexual and psychological violence experienced by women is at the hands of family members, especially husbands, partners and fathers. However, in Nigeria this violence is a deeply entrenched part of our society. And as we head into the holiday season when financial stresses are more likely to exacerbate family tensions and escalate domestic violence, we need to take a hard look at the phenomenon.
Domestic violence is so deeply embedded in our societies that it is often supported by women themselves. An analysis of Demographic and Health Survey data from in seven Sub-Saharan African countries found that 36 to 89 percent of women justified domestic violence in at least one of five specified situations such as if the wife burns the food, neglects the children, argues with her husband, goes out without telling permission or refuses to have sex with her partner.
The normalisation of this violence can be seen in the most visible aspect of Nigerian popular culture: Nollywood movies. In one survey of Africa Magic, a Nollywood-dominated channel on the satellite television subscription service DSTV, nearly every film shown in a 12-hour cycle depicted a scene of domestic violence – from a boyfriend slapping his girlfriend for “disrespecting” him, to a husband shouting abuses at a wife who dared to contradict him and a father hitting his daughter. And in every film the abuse was treated as normal – unremarked upon by any of the characters.
The problem extends to the highest levels of our government. Earlier this month a governor was exposed for illegally detaining his wife in their home on grounds that she was mentally ill. His wife has since refuted claims of her mental instability describing a situation of escalating domestic and mental abuse that lasted throughout the four-year marriage. In 2010, the Deji of Akure was deposed by the Ondo State Government for beating his wife in public, and in 2012 the wife of the deputy governor of a northern state told reporters that her husband beat her constantly, in part because she watched television movies.
As recently as last Friday, a state governor was forced to apologize for his remarks to a widow whose goods had been seized as part of a sanitation exercise. In a video of the encounter, a woman in tears is kneeling before the governor and begging for mercy. As uniformed men shove the woman ripping her goods from her hands, a crowd of well-dressed onlookers – mostly men – look on in silence, unmoved by the violence.
Studies show that these are more than isolated incidents. One in three Nigerian women reported having been physically abused by a male partner, according to a World Health Organisation study conducted in 1993. According to the British Council’s 2012 Gender in Nigeria report, the country has some of the highest rates of gender disparity in the world. Statistics show that unmarried women between 15 and 35 are the most vulnerable to violence but this masks the fact that married women who experience violence within their homes are less likely to report it. The report noted that “Nigeria’s 80.2 million women and girls have significantly worse life chances than men, and their sisters in comparable societies. Violence compounds and reinforces this disadvantage and exclusion.”
2012 Women’s Aid ad campaign used famous female faces made up to show the physical effects of domestic violence.
The problem of domestic violence is often framed around the victim: what she may or may not have done to “provoke” it, or how she can spot warning signs of a potential abuser and avoid him, or at its most tragic why she doesn’t just leave. However, this is a distortion of the real problem. Research has shown that excluding women from economic, health, educational and political opportunities costs societies. Our security, growth and long-term welfare are seriously compromised and we doom ourselves to being a less productive, less healthy and ultimately less progressive society than we could be. Therefore the question we should be asking is why do men beat women and why do we allow it to happen?
For one thing, we need to re-frame how we view violence against women. As writer and activist Jackson Katz notes, “gender violence as a men’s issue involving men of all ages and socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. [We need to] view men not only as perpetrators or possible offenders, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers.”
Domestic violence stems from unexamined attitudes about gender and the status of women. What some analysts have described as “entrenched social and cultural learning processes that subjugate the position of women in the society, [and] socially and collectively undermine their self-esteem.”
Therefore Katz urges men to “have the courage to look inward. Question your own attitudes. Don’t be defensive when something you do or say ends up hurting someone else. Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, and work toward changing them. Mentor and teach young boys about how to be men in ways that don’t involve degrading or abusing girls and women.”
Our social dynamics need to change. We cannot continue to accept violence against women in any form. We cannot continue to limit the opportunities of women and girls for our own comfort. For when we exclude women from participating fully in society, when we insist on narrowly defined roles for both genders, we are limiting ourselves to using only half of our resources, half of our creative spirit. Ultimately, when we work to hold women back, we are only holding back ourselves.