October 11, 2010
Abuse Against African Women
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.
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