Violence Against Women International
Foundation Violence Agains Women International is a non profit organization working as speciaL consultative status with United Nations.
International Day to End Violence against Women
25 November 2013
Estudio multipaís de la OMS sobre salud de la mujer y la violencia doméstica : primeros resultados sobre prevalencia, eventos relativos a la salud y respuestas de las mujeres a dicha violencia : resumen del informe
“When we came across these searches, we were shocked by how negative they were and decided we had to do something with them,” says Christopher Hunt, Art Director of the creative team. The idea developed places the text of the Google searches over the mouths of women portraits, as if to silence their voices.
For UN Women, the searches confirm the urgent need to continue making the case for women’s rights, empowerment and equality, a cause the organization is pursuing around the world. UN Women is heartened by the initial strong reaction to the ads and hopes they will spark constructive dialogue globally”. – UN Women
Foundation Violence Against Women International (NGO)
FOUNDATION VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN INTERNATIONAL IS A NON PROFIT ORGANIZATION (NGO)
“To reduce the burden of violence on individuals and communities, action must move beyond providing services, detecting violence,and punishing perpetrators. Creative solutions must be found to address the underlying societal conditions that lead people to believe that violence is a reasonable alternative” (Bruntland in Health and Human Rights 2003:12)
(1) Domestic violence
Domestic violence corrodes the fabric of women’s emotional and social worlds. The process of extinguishing a woman’s sense of herself, her relationships, her understanding of her past and her present is a destructive one. It occurs behind closed doors and thrives in an environment of secrecy and isolation. Unsurprisingly, others, including professionals have had little access to this closed world and its destructive interior.
Paradoxically, the route to safety has also, and by necessity, often occurred behind closed doors. There has been little exposure of the complex process of support and healing which has been undertaken with workers and other women within the refuge sector. The need for secret addresses, high levels of security, and privacy to allow the slow process of recovery has meant that the work of refuges has also been subject to invisibility. These texts bring to light the complexity of this work and women’s journeys. It is not before time. The context of women’s services is changing. The entwining of advocacy for services combined with the high levels of emotional support required for women to embark on the difficult pathway to recovery is changing - and not always for the best. A number of challenges beset both individual women and the sector.
Firstly, the drive to provide cheaper and more ‘efficient’ accommodation for women and children escaping domestic violence has frequently meant that the complex array of services provided through refuges has been underestimated. The threat to specialist refuges for black and minority ethnic women, and the drive to provide only minimal support through hostel accommodation fails to recognize the level of fear, trauma, and grief which the crisis of separation can represent. It is not a time to leave women alone to fend for them when this act of independence and bravery can provide the first step towards a new life free from violence. High level support is essential and cost effective and should not be constructed as a luxury. The second issue lies in contrast, and possibly contradiction to the first.
This is namely that domestic violence intervention is becoming increasingly professionalized. Domestic violence forums are dominated by police, health professionals, social workers, and housing workers. While this mainstreaming is an exciting development which can create significantly more attention to domestic violence, it carries with it some dangers. These can include downgrading the high levels of competence and experience provided by Women’s Aid and other specialist voluntary sector organizations, as well as an underestimation of the role and value of mutual support provided by one survivor towards another and the effectiveness of creating shared activities for children.
Understanding the balance to be struck is particularly evident when the intervention to support the emotional well-being of both women and children is considered. Recognition that the impact of violence and abuse can be traumatizing and that the erosion of women’s esteem and identity can lead to depression, high anxiety, and suicide attempts is not new. However, problems arise if we then think that only professional counselors and mental health professionals are able to provide the requisite help.
The interviews with women in refuges provide testimony to its significance and a reminder that as the ‘purpose built refuge’ characterized by separate accommodation units for women and children emerges, that steps are required by workers to facilitate the opportunities for women to get to know and support each other in their day- to-day living. A major step in the recovery from trauma and hence recovery in the aftermath of violence is to re-establish social support and step away from the isolation created by violence and abuse. At the heart of a situation of domestic violence is one individual, most often a woman, who is paying a heavy personal, social, economic, and emotional cost.
She may have children - or not. She may be married – or not. She may have learning difficulties or physical impairments, be old or young, a member of a religious, ethnic or cultural minority or of any class of society. For any woman who is in a violent relationship, seeking to leave it, or trying to find the strength to rebuild her life after doing so, there is a need not only for practical support to enable her to access appropriate services, but also for emotional support to build up shattered confidence and self-esteem. For some women, this support may be needed for a relatively short period; for others it may need to extend over a much longer timescale. At the heart of a situation of domestic violence is one individual, most often a woman, who is paying a heavy personal, social, economic, and emotional cost. She may have children - or not. She may be married - or not.
She may have learning difficulties or physical impairments, be old or young, a member of a religious, ethnic or cultural minority or of any class of society. For any woman who is in a violent relationship, seeking to leave it, or trying to find the strength to rebuild her life after doing so, there is a need not only for practical support to enable her to access appropriate services, but also for emotional support to build up shattered confidence and self-esteem.
For some women, this support may be needed for a relatively short period; for others it may need to extend over a much longer timescale cost-effective services. For women who are experiencing, or have experienced, domestic violence, it offers a way of making sense of events and feelings that can seem bewildering and chaotic, enabling them to locate themselves in a process with an ending and to recognize their own capabilities of taking action and influencing outcomes. It was evident from their accounts that most of the women who talked to me had experienced abuse for between five and ten years. For some, it had extended over a much longer period – one woman had suffered emotional abuse for almost 40 years. It can be difficult, not only for the general public, but also for some professionals who come in contact with them, to understand why women remain in these relationships; or, if they leave, why they are likely to return to their abuser on one or more occasions.
This may lead to feelings of frustration and perhaps the view that there is little point in taking action in the case under consideration, or indeed in subsequent similar cases. For the woman who is experiencing domestic violence, there are complex issues around staying, leaving, or returning. Some of these may revolve around the relationship itself, where feelings may be confused, ambiguous, and painful. Others may relate to the practicalities of leaving – the losses that will be sustained in the process, access to material resources and support, loneliness, having to manage alone, the needs of her children and the fear of retribution. Underlying all of this will be the effects that domestic violence have had on her physical health and mental and emotional well-being.
(2) Domestic violence
Domestic violence remains a relatively new field of study among social scientists. Only within the past 4 decades have scholars recognized domestic violence as a social problem. Initially, domestic violence research focused on child abuse. Thereafter, researchers focused on wife abuse and used this concept interchangeably with domestic violence.
Within the past 20 years, researchers have acknowledged that other forms of violent relationships exist, including dating violence, battered males, and same-sex domestic violence. Moreover, academicians have recognized a subcategory within the field of criminal justice: victimology (the scientific study of victims). Throughout the
The media have informed us that domestic violence is so commonplace that the public has unfortunately grown accustomed to reading and hearing about husbands killing their wives, mothers killing their children, or parents neglecting their children. While it is understood that these offenses take place, the explanations as to what factors contributed to them remain unclear. In order to prevent future violence, it is imperative to understand its roots. There is no one causal explanation for domestic violence; however, there are numerous factors which may help explain these unjustified acts of violence. Highly publicized cases such as the O.J. Simpson and Scott Peterson trials have shown the world that alleged murderers may not resemble the deranged sociopath depicted in horror films. Rather, they can be handsome, charming, and well-liked by society. In addition, court-centered programming on television continuously publicizes cases of violence within the home informing the public that we are potentially at risk by our caregivers and other loved ones. There is the case of the au pair Elizabeth Woodward convicted of shaking and killing Matthew Eappen, the child entrusted to her care. Some of the most highly publicized cases have also focused on mothers who kill.
Victims of Domestic Violence
Initial research recognized wives as victims of domestic violence. Thereafter, it was acknowledged that unmarried women were also falling victim to violence at the hands of their boyfriends. Subsequently, the term ‘‘battered women’’ became synonymous with ‘‘battered wives.’’ Legitimizing female victimization served as the catalyst in introducing other types of intimate partner violence.
Theoretical Perspectives and Correlates to Domestic Violence
There is no single causal factor related to domestic violence. Rather, scholars have concluded that there are numerous factors that contribute to domestic violence. Feminists found that women were beaten at the hands of their partners. Drawing on feminist theory, they helped explain the relationship between patriarchy and domestic violence.
Researchers have examined other theoretical perspectives such as attachment theory, exchange theory, identity theory, the cycle of violence, social learning theory, and victim-blaming theory in explaining domestic violence. However, factors exist that may not fall into a single theoretical perspective. Correlates have shown that certain factors such as pregnancy, social class, and level of education, animal abuse, and substance abuse may influence the likelihood for victimization.
Cross-Cultural and Religious Perspectives
It was essential to acknowledge that domestic violence crosses cultural boundaries and religious affiliations. There is no one particular society or religious group exempt from victimization. A variety of developed and developing countries were examined in understanding the prevalence of domestic violence within their societies as well as their coping strategies in handling these volatile issues. It is often misunderstood that one religious group is more tolerant of family violence than another. As Christianity, Islam, and Judaism represent the three major religions of the world, their ideologies were explored in relation to the acceptance and prevalence of domestic violence.
Understudied Areas within Domestic Violence
Domestic violence has typically examined traditional relationships, such as husband–wife, boyfriend-girlfriend, and parent-child. Consequently, scholars have historically ignored non-traditional relationships. In fact, certain entries have limited cross-references based on the fact that there were limited, if any, scholarly publications on that topic. Only since the 1990s have scholars admitted that violence exists among lesbians and gay males. There are other ignored populations that are addressed in our texts including violence within military and police families, violence within pseudo-family environments, and violence against women and children with disabilities.
Domestic Violence and the Law
The Violence against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 helped pave domestic violence concerns into legislative matters. Historically, family violence was handled through informal measures often resulting in mishandling of cases. Through VAWA, victims were given the opportunity to have their cases legally remedied. This legitimized the separation of specialized domestic and family violence courts from criminal courts. The law has recognized that victims of domestic violence deserve recognition and resolution. Law enforcement agencies may be held civilly accountable for their actions in domestic violence incidents. Mandatory arrest policies have been initiated helping reduce discretionary power of police officers. Courts have also begun to focus on the offenders of domestic violence. Currently, there are batterer intervention programs and mediation programs available for offenders within certain jurisdictions. Its goals are to reduce the rate of recidivism among batterers.
Child Abuse and Elder Abuse
Scholars began to address child abuse over the last third of the twentieth century. It is now recognized that child abuse falls within a wide spectrum. In the past, it was based on visible bruises and scars. Today, researchers have acknowledged that psychological abuse, where there are no visible injuries, is just as damaging as its counterpart. One of the greatest controversies in child abuse literature is that of Munchausen by Proxy. Some scholars have recognized that it is a syndrome while others would deny a syndrome exists. Regardless of the term ‘‘syndrome,’’ Munchausen by Proxy does exist and needs to be further examined. Another form of violence that needs to be further examined is elder abuse. Elder abuse literature typically focused on abuse perpetrated by children and caregivers.
With increased life expectancies, it is now understood that there is greater probability for violence among elderly intimate couples. Shelters and hospitals need to better understand this unique population in order to better serve its victims.
(3) Domestic Violence
The effects of domestic violence
Over the past decade, many definitions of domestic violence have been adopted by agencies and organizations working in this field. To enable a base to be established for data collection and information sharing, the government has agreed a common, core definition for use across all departments which can also be adopted by local domestic violence partnerships. This states that domestic violence is:
Any incident of threatening behavior, violence, or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial, or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender or sexuality.
The majority of partnerships move to develop fuller definitions, which maintain compatibility with the core definition, while reflecting the realities of their own situations, their remit and their aims and objectives.
But what does this definition mean in reality?
This is by no means an inclusive or definitive list, but is intended to show some of the many different ways in which abuse can take place and has been compiled from research carried out over the past ten years. Physical or sexual violence is not usually confined to a single episode – repeated incidents, which increase in frequency and intensity over time, are the most common pattern. Once the first physical or sexual incident, however minor, has taken place, there will inevitably be the anticipation and fear of further violence, resulting in growing feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Other forms of abuse – constant criticism and belittling, possessive and controlling behavior, isolation, access to money and other resources – may be combined with physical or sexual abuse, or be used alone, but equally create feelings of anticipatory fear and anxiety. Women explained that they were constantly wondering and worrying as to what their partner’s mood was going to be.
Would it be a quiet, peaceful day with just a few plates thrown, or would it start badly and get much, much worse?
The unpredictable nature and timing of the abuse removed from them any sense of physical or mental safety. As a result they were unable ever to be at ease, or to trust what was going on around them. Acts of physical and sexual violence had often severely injured them and some women had suffered permanent damage to their physical health. Yet they were emphatic that it had been the mental consequences of these acts and of the other emotional abuse that they had suffered - the ‘mind games’, manipulation and control which their abusers attempted to exercise over every aspect of their lives and thoughts - that had been the hardest to bear.
It was in some ways, they told me, worse than the physical abuse, since they were unable to show evidence of the damage that had been caused to their emotional well-being and mental health and from which they felt they might never recover. ‘He just messed with my head so much’ was a frequent comment. This stress on the psychological impact of abuse has been noted by other researchers in this field.
Women talked about the way their world had ‘closed in’ as they became isolated by their abuser from communication with family and friends, either through direct prohibition, or by making it extremely difficult to maintain contact. For example, the amount of money available for transport might be restricted, or aggressive and insulting behavior might drive away those who came to visit. Some women, perhaps with elderly or infirm relatives, did not want to expose them to the risk of abuse. There were also feelings of shame and guilt around what was happening, which could make them reluctant to make contact.
Their connections with the wider community were also subject to control and scrutiny. Shopping trips were timed and closely monitored, with lengthy interrogations as to whom they had met and talked to and any activities outside the home were implicitly or explicitly discouraged. (In one case, this included regular hospital check-ups to monitor medication levels.)
This isolation was made worse in rural areas by lack of adequate public transport and accessible community facilities. Some women had been forbidden to use the telephone, or it had been ripped out. Jobs had also been given up or lost because of the level of control exercised over outside contacts, taking away access to independent financial resources, as well as social contact with workmates. The same had been true of further education, or other study.
With the diminution of potentially supportive networks, communication with the only permitted source of conversation, the abuser, became more significant, influencing women’s views on life in general and in particular, their view of themselves. Inevitably, this had a negative effect, with women talking of the effect that constant criticism of their appearance, intelligence and ability had had on them. ‘The emotional abuse is terrible. To be told, for nearly eight years, that I was stupid and I was thick and…you know, you believe it.’ Perhaps the saddest, yet most tenuous aspect of this emotional abuse was the way in which it appeared to have destroyed women’s own aspirations and ideals.
This was most poignantly expressed in two lines of a poem that Amalie had written while in the refuge:
He took my hopes and my dreams
And my reach for the stars.
Isolation and constant denigration resulted in a gradual and terrifying erosion of their personal integrity - of being a person in their own right, with ideas and ideals worthy of recognition and respect. They lost confidence in themselves and their abilities, their self-respect and self-esteem, feeling, as they had been told so often, that they were ‘worthless’ and ‘a waste of space’.
No one aspect of abuse can be seen as standing alone - they feed on each other. Physical and emotional abuses both create an atmosphere of fear, shame, uncertainty, and lack of trust that places a barrier between women and those around them, isolating them from potential sources of support. Possessive and controlling behavior results in economic and social deprivation by limiting access to clothes and other material goods, transport, education and social activities, further increasing feelings of isolation and reinforcing the dominance and importance of the abuser.
Without outside support to check the reality of her perceptions, isolation turns thoughts inward to review what is happening, resulting in an inversion of reality, whereby the woman believes that she is the one to blame. Her sense of guilt and shame works to increase her isolation and ability to trust herself or those around her. A. described how this happened to her:
Because you are isolated, you’re going through it, you are isolated, because you are blaming yourself all the time. You see the man as the good one. Yeah, he’s right. In the end, you’ve got no…you know, you seem so down you think, well, it is my entire fault. So, in the end, you’re scared to talk to anyone. And I found myself thinking, they all know. They all know that… They all think that it’s my fault.
Consequently, women are held in an abusive relationship by what has aptly been termed a ‘web’ of interrelated behaviors and social and economic difficulties; by both fear and the reality which reinforces it. It takes courage and determination just to keep going in these circumstances, let alone take the decision to leave. It was clear, however, that women did take positive action to protect themselves and their children and to maintain some kind of contact with other people.
They made efforts to defuse tension in potentially dangerous situations, trying to please and satisfy the abuser, monitoring their own behavior to avoid confrontation and looking for ways out of their situation, including leaving temporarily to give themselves respite and time to think. They had utilized help lines, either by using mobile phones or, where they were allowed unchecked access, by landlines.
They used drop-in centers, did their best to keep the home together, and took whatever opportunities offered to be in contact with others. Those who had jobs tried hard to keep them, and if they lost them looked for other paid or voluntary positions. These strategies contrast strongly with the idea of ‘learned helplessness’, a concept which argues that women who experience repeated abuse become helpless, passive and submissive, feeling powerless to control their lives and unable to leave the relationship.
In her later work, Walker has modified this concept to accept that the overall position is more complex. Women are not totally helpless or passive within an individual incident or continuing situation. Nevertheless, ‘learned helplessness’ has been widely adopted by social workers, the medical profession, and other agencies and can result in the woman being seen as ‘the problem’ rather than the abuser.
Examples of domestic violence
Threat to harm children
Isolation from family and friends
Loss of social contact
Denial of privacy
Deprived of sleep, money, clothes, going out, use of telephone
Terror and intimidation
Kicking, slapping, hitting
Pushing, shoving, grabbing
Choking, strangling, suffocating
Using a weapon
Bruising, broken bones, cuts, scratches
Bitten, burnt, scalded
Miscarriage due to violence
Chemical in face
Degrading and humiliating sexual acts
Other forms of abuse
Damage to personal property
Theft of property
Threats and violence to pets, animals
Denied access to work
(4) Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is a form of aggression perpetrated by one family member against another. It includes a pattern of behaviors involving physical, sexual, economic, and emotional abuse, used alone or in combination, by an intimate partner often for the purpose of establishing and maintaining power and control over the other partner. Studies have shown that women are the primary victims of domestic violence. This is particularly true of women in Africa, where studies show that 35 to 75 percent of women are victims of violence at the hands of fathers, husbands, intimate partners, or male members of their families at some point in their lives. Given this situation, this text examines the role the law plays in the problem of domestic violence in Africa.
First and foremost, most African countries do not have specific laws prohibiting domestic violence and the associated gender-specific abuses women and girls suffer in Africa. The South African 1998 Domestic Violence Act is a notable exception in that it prohibits not only domestic violence but rape within marriage and other forms of violence in both marital and nonmarital relationships, including abuses by parents, guardians, other family members, and anyone who resides with the victim. In Mauritania, a Protection from Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1997. Additionally, as a result of pressure from the
United Nations, African Union, World Health Organization, international and domestic human rights organizations, international and domestic nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and human rights activists from around the world, a number of countries (including Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda) have drafted domestic violence bills which are at various stages of parliamentary discussions. Other countries, such as Senegal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have laws prohibiting violence against women and girls, but such laws are rarely enforced. Even the constitutions of several countries in Africa guarantee equal rights to all citizens, including clauses that bar discrimination on the basis of sex; however, as Human Rights Watch points out, the governments of African countries have failed to enforce existing laws and implement policies that reflect the principles of gender equality found in both regional and international human rights documents.
Although passing gender-sensitive laws that reflect the principles of human rights found in international documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and regional documents such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa of the African Union are moves in the right direction, such laws become mere formalities if they are not enforced. For example, in 1998, the Ghanaian Parliament passed the Criminal Code Amendment Bill banning all forms of ritualized enslavement, but according to Aird, ritualized forced labor is still practiced in Ghana. Similarly, female genital mutilation – a practice that is widespread in Africa-has been outlawed in twelve countries, but according to the Ark Foundation Ghana and Human Rights Watch, the practice still goes on, and perpetrators have been prosecuted only in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. Further, in Uganda, the 1972 Succession (Amendment) Decree, intended to recognize women’s right to inherit from their husbands and fathers, and the 2003 Land Act (Amendment) Bill, intended to provide widows greater protection from eviction from their matrimonial homes following the death of their husbands, are usually not enforced. Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 prohibits corporal punishment of wives by husbands and grants spouses equal rights to property acquired through joint efforts. In practice, however, Tanzanian women are still denied these rights. Furthermore, the Penal Code in Zambia prohibits virtually all abuses associated with sexual violence, coercion, and discrimination based on sex, but these provisions are not enforced by the state. From the foregoing, it is evident that enforcing existing statutes while drafting new legislations would stem down the tide of domestic abuse in Africa.
Also relevant to the problem of domestic violence in Africa is the fact that most African countries have multiple legal systems: statutory law, civil law, customary law, and religious law. When these legal systems conflict, as they often do, the dictates of customary law and/or religious law are generally adhered to. For example, in Cameroon, marital rape is recognized as an offense under statutory law but tolerated under customary law because it is culturally accepted that consent to marriage constitutes unlimited consent to sexual intercourse. Further, rape, according to Hajjar, is a punishable offense in every Muslim society, but under dominant interpretations of Sharia, forced sex within marriage is not an offense. Also, in Sierra Leone and Cameroon, the statutory age of marriage is twenty-one and fifteen, respectively, while under Islamic and customary laws in both countries, a girl is marriageable at twelve. In Nigeria, the Criminal Code stipulates that the age of marriage is sixteen, but under customary law, girls can be married off at twelve; in Ethiopia, the age of marriage according to statutory law is eighteen, but under customary law, girls can be married off at the tender age of eight. Further, civil law in Liberia prohibits polygyny but customary law permits men to have two or more wives simultaneously. In light of the above, the problem of domestic violence in Africa is partially due to the conflicts that exist among the multiple legal systems that operate in Africa.
Another area where the law in Africa tends to contribute to the problem of domestic violence is in its stance to rape. There is generally a narrow definition of the crime of rape in most African countries. The laws in many countries (East Timor, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe), when referring to ‘‘sexual violence,’’ specifically talk about rape as the penetration of a female victim’s vagina by a male perpetrator’s penis; at times, the definition goes further to require ejaculation for the elements of the crime of rape to be complete. Acts of forced oral or anal sex or penetration by foreign objects are not considered rape. The confusion in rape laws in Africa is worse in Sierra Leone, where the rape of a person over the age of sixteen is considered a felony and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, but the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl is misconstrued as a misdemeanor and carries a maximum sentence of two years. Even more confusing is the fact that to be classified as rape in both cases, the victim must have been a virgin, because forced sexual intercourse with a nonvirgin is not considered rape in Sierra Leone.
Also, statutory law in Sierra Leone requires that all serious criminal cases be tried under general law, but rape cases are frequently prosecuted under customary law, under which the alleged perpetrator is generally required to pay ‘‘virgin money’’ to the family of his victim and to the chiefs who oversee such cases. In Muslim communities, the ‘‘virgin victim’’ is sometimes forced to marry the offender, as a girl or woman who is not a virgin is considered less eligible for marriage. In other countries, the rules of evidence require the corroborating testimony of a witness to the sexual assault before a rape survivor’s statement can be admissible in court. Consequently, families of rape survivors in those countries seek monetary compensation rather than criminal prosecution. In some ways, statutory laws in Africa discriminate against women and in so doing contribute to the problem of domestic violence. For example, Article 7 of the Trade Code in Cameroon allows a husband to oppose his wife’s right to work if the protest is made in the interest of the household and family, and according to Articles 1421 and 1428 of the Civil Code, women are not fully entitled to use, enjoy, or sell their own property. Article 1421 grants husbands the right to administer communal property, which means that the husband has the legal right to sell or mortgage the couple’s property without the wife’s consent.
Also, Section 361 of the Penal Code in Cameroon criminalizes adultery, but the provisions differ depending upon whether the adulterer is the wife or the husband. The law provides that ‘‘any married woman having sexual intercourse with a man other than her husband shall be punished’’ and that ‘‘any married man having sexual intercourse in the matrimonial home, or habitually having sexual intercourse elsewhere, with a woman other than his wife or wives, shall be punished’’. While in the case of women all adultery is a criminal offense, for men, it is or is not a crime depending on the venue or frequency.
Under the Personal Status Code of Morocco and Egypt, women are treated as legal minors and denied the legal autonomy to conclude their own marriage contracts. The code establishes male authority over female members of the family. Furthermore, women in Africa seeking to formally terminate violent marriages through divorce face enormous legal obstacles. In most countries, a woman cannot simply accuse her husband of adultery to terminate their marriage; she must couple her claim with a claim of cruelty and/or desertion or claim that the adultery was incestuous or bigamous.
There is no such legal requirement for men. Marriage and divorce laws in Uganda discriminate against women and contravene constitutional guarantees for nondiscrimination, equal protection of the law, and equal rights in marriage, during marriage, and at its dissolution. For example, Section 27 of Uganda’s Divorce Act stipulates that if a wife’s adultery is the cause of a divorce, a court may order that all or part of her property be settled for the benefit of the husband and/or the children. There is no such provision for men. Nationality laws in Egypt, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, and Zambia also discriminate against women. While men from these countries can transmit their nationality to their children wherever they are born and whoever their mothers are, women, on the other hand, do not have the same right. Furthermore, immigration rules in Nigeria require that a wife obtain her husband’s endorsement before she can be issued an international passport and that for the children to be endorsed on her passport, their father must give written consent. Religious laws in Africa are also discriminatory against women and as a result can contribute to the prevalence of domestic violence. Sharia tends to be interpreted in ways that give men power over women family members; dominant interpretations of Sharia treat women as legal minors and accord men the status of heads of their families with guardianship authority over and responsibility for women. As a result, women have a duty to obey their guardians-husbands, fathers, or other male heads of the family. Consequently, a male legal guardian of an adult woman can oppose her choice of husband. Also, under the Sharia penal code in Nigeria-as in other African countries with large Muslim populations-a husband has the right to beat his wife as long as the beating does not result in grievous harm, which is defined as loss of sight, hearing, power of speech, facial disfigurement, or other life-endangering injuries. In effect, while divorce is a permissible option to end a marriage under Islam, in many largely Islamic countries, it tends to be treated as a male prerogative; women can easily be divorced but not seek divorce. Additionally, dominant/fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia, according to Hajjar, allow men to have up to four wives, to whom they have unabridged sexual access and who cannot refuse, because such refusal can be conceived as a defiance of their duties and can give rise to accusations of disobedience, thereby triggering legal justification for beating. Such interpretations are evident in decisions handed down by Sharia courts in predominantly fundamentalist countries. For example, an appellate Sharia court in Nigeria upheld a sentence of death by stoning against a woman for having sex outside marriage, while setting free the man she allegedly had sex with on the ground that the court lacked sufficient evidence to prosecute him for the alleged adultery. This growing Islamic fundamentalism led the Egyptian government to amend its constitution in 1981 to provide that the principles of Sharia would constitute the main source of legislation in Egypt. There is no doubt that such legislations would adversely affect women.
Another way the law could affect the incidence of domestic violence in Africa is in its recognition of customary laws and practices. Due to the multiplicity of ethnic origins and cultural differences reflected in the various beliefs and practices found in most African countries, national governments allow local governments and authorities to interpret and apply local norms and values to issues that arise from within their communities without interference as long as such norms and values pass the ‘‘repugnancy test.’’ This test, according to Okereafoezeke, is the government’s legal requirement that for a customary law to be enforced, it must neither be repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience nor be contrary to any written law. Since African traditional society is highly patriarchal, the resulting body of customary laws is highly discriminatory against women. For example, under African customary law, a man can marry two or more wives simultaneously and can divorce any one of them without any verifiable justification. Women have no such right. Also, once married, an African woman is considered her husband’s inheritance property, comparable to her spouse’s personal property and real estate, and upon his death, she herself can be inherited by her husband’s brother. As an old custom, wife inheritance was a way for men to take responsibility for their dead brothers’ children and household, but the fact that it can be and is frequently forced on the woman contributes to the problem of domestic violence against women in Africa.
Most marriages under customary law require the family of the prospective husband to pay a ‘‘bride price,’’ or dowry, in the form of money or a gift to the family of the prospective wife. Historically, this payment indicated appreciation for the characteristics and skills of the bride and a bonding of the two families and the extended family on both sides.
Now, a bride price is frequently regarded simply as payment for a commodity and, as in any commercial transaction, entitles the husband-essentially, the buyer-to full ownership rights over his acquisition. As property, many women married under customary law have no authority within what is seen as the man’s home. According to human rights organizations and the United Nations, this practice subjugates women to the unbridled authority of their husbands because it reinforces the inferior status of women within customary marriages and forces women to remain in abusive relationships. Furthermore, under customary law, husbands have numerous grounds for divorce available to them, including infidelity, infertility, adultery, witchcraft, or insubordination.
The grounds available to wives are limited to impotence, excessive cruelty, and desertion.
Also under customary marriage laws, spouse abuse is not a legitimate ground for divorce. In fact, interviews by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations across Africa show that neither men nor women see anything wrong with a husband beating his wife every now and then. The League of Democratic Women holds that in addition to approving of physical abuse of wives, women also perpetrate psychological violence on other women, especially in the observance of widowhood rites, which include shaving the woman’s head bald; making her sit/sleep on the floor for a certain length of time; making her drink water used to bathe the corpse; making her jump over the corpse/grave; making her sit/sleep with the corpse; making her eat from a broken plate and not allowing her to wash the hand used to eat; expecting her to cry/wail early in the mornings; keeping her in seclusion or restricting her movement for a certain period of time; making her take an oath of innocence; and disinheriting her of property acquired with her deceased spouse. In contrast, a widower is showered with sympathy and compassion on the death of a wife. To console him, a woman could be procured for the widower even on the night of the wife’s death to keep him ‘‘company.’’
Although most African countries do not have laws specifically prohibiting domestic violence and related gender-specific violence perpetrated against women and girls, it can be argued that the greatest problem with regard to domestic violence in Africa is nonenforcement of existing laws and constitutional provisions that bar discrimination on the basis of sex. By the same token, amending laws that directly or indirectly discriminate against women would be a move in the right direction.