October 11, 2010

Abuse Against African Women

Posted in Abuse in Special Populations tagged , , , , , , at 7:57 pm by Rainbow Gryphon

On October 9, Jason at the Pagan blog The Wild Hunt posted an article about Navaratri, a 9- or 10-day festival celebrating the “feminine” power of Spirit. It began on October 8 and runs through October 16 or 17. Jason links to a powerful post by Saumya Arya Haas called “American Shakti” where Haas encourages readers to celebrate the divine “feminine” over this Navaratri period and makes some simple suggestions on how to do that. In honor of Shakti, I’ve decided to write about abuse against African women.

The studies I ran across typically focus on provinces in a certain area, but overall, between 30 to 60 percent of African women suffer from physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse at some time in their lives. The attitudes both men and women in Africa have towards domestic abuse seems to be the biggest block to abolishing it. A 2001 article in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ) from May (Vol. 91, No. 5) states that “the roots of violence against women lie in the patriarchal nature of [African] society, where women are viewed as inferior to men, often as their possessions, and in need of being led and controlled.”

There’s also the attitude that violence is an acceptable way “to control and punish women,” and this view is supported by women as well as men. An article from Africa Renewal from July 2007 (Vol. 21, No. 2) mentions a 2000 report by the UN Population Fund that admitted violence against a woman by her husband or partner is seen as his right. The article also discusses cultural practices that essentially treat a woman as a possession that was paid for (with a dowry) and can be transferred among male family members in the case of the death of her husband. Naturally, any property owned by the deceased husband goes to the new husband, and the woman is essentially left at his mercy. Little wonder, then, that many African women who find themselves in abusive relationships feel as if they have no choice but to endure them.

Emotional abuse is also common. The SAMJ article shows that women in all three South African provinces studied report emotional abuse such as humiliation and financial abuse (which, from what I understand, involves preventing women from working and/or men spending money on themselves but not on supporting their families). Some men also try to prevent these women from having contact with family members, friends, and other men in an attempt to control them. A report by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) on violence against women in Rwanda from 2008 confirms these forms of emotional and financial abuse as well as mentioning criticism and insults and other forms of control, such as being told what to do and having to account for their every move.

Reported by all of the sources that I consulted is the issue of domestic abuse being a family matter rather than a legal or social one, leading to reluctance on the part of the victim to report it and the part of observers to intervene. When explaining domestic abuse incidents, the UNIFEM report states that “‘[t]hese women … seem to analyze the phenomenon through some partner’s individual characteristics. There is no attempt to challenge the society or the family system.” I believe that social norms are really a reflection of millions of individual attitudes in unison. Acceptance of abuse is a social problem. When we endure misery and cruelty on a daily basis and find only reinforcement for our inferiority all around us, it can be almost impossible to believe that we don’t, in fact, deserve to suffer in this way.

There is, though, growing awareness in Africa that abuse is a violation of human rights (and by extension, that women in Africa are to be seen as humans, not possessions). Laws against domestic abuse are being written (though enforcing them is still a problem). The media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Africa are starting to treat abuse as it should be treated, an unacceptable way to cope with anger, frustration, and conflict in the home.

I believe everything and everyone are connected in ways we can’t explain logically. If we think we’re at fault for the abuse that we suffer but then say that other abused women aren’t at fault, we undermine their healing as well as our own. This is part of the divine “feminine” that runs through us all. I believe that’s one reason why it’s important to learn about abuse against women everywhere, including Africa.



  1. Saumya said,

    Greetings, Rainbow,
    A friend directed me to your blog. I am absolutely honored and delighted that you have found such a powerful and personal way to observe Navratri. I look forward to reading all your Shakti posts.

    • rainbow said,

      Hi Saumya,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and for inspiring non-Hindus to celebrate this beautiful festival. I always appreciate it when someone opens up their cultural experiences to show us the universality in them. I’m learning a lot from writing these Shakti posts about the divine “feminine” and about connecting with other women.

  2. Shakti Moves said,

    Peace and Blessings Rainbow,

    I am thrilled you are choosing to explore Shakti and the manifestation of the Divine Feminine by taking a look at the conditions of contemporary African women! I am of mixed-race heritage (East Indian/Zambian) and have found such a tremendous sense of empowerment through a study of Shakti within the Hindu cosmology that it has become the basis for much of the work I do around women’s healing and the resurrection of women’s mysteries. As an African woman, I find however, that we often read and hear completely debilitating (and sobering)stories about the oppression of African women. I recognize this is a necessary part of the conversation that needs to take place around the social, economic, and psycho-spiritual liberation of African women, but this is only one part of the dialogue. If we are to heal the collective and individual wounds of abuse towards women and to the planet, we must start having conversations that deal with the solutions-that deal with the ways that we can move through our pain. We have to start identifying, acknowledging the methods, customs, traditions and practices that have actually been cultivated by African women. What are all the rituals and rites of passage that exist which might help us to address the power of the Divine Feminine in Africa? in order to help heal the atrocities which have been committed against the women of Africa. We have to continue to work in the spirit of forward movement and healing. Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Power On, Rainbow!

    Bright Wishes,
    Shakti Moves

    • rainbow said,

      Hi Shakti Moves,

      Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting from your experiences. You’re absolutely right! It’s very easy to focus on the pain and then leave it at that. As an outsider, though, I feel that at this point, this is the best I can do. My goal in this post was to explore what’s happening and why it’s happening because I knew nothing about this topic. In the near future, I’ll be posting an article on domestic abuse in Belize, and my goal there is similar.

      Please know that this isn’t the end of my work on this issue or indeed domestic abuse against women in non-Western countries. One lesson I learned from my Shakti posts is that we are, indeed, all connected. Healing these destructive social structures is good for us all, and I definitely plan on exploring that as my knowledge on these issues increases.


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