This year, as part of the work my organisation does in combating domestic violence, we have combed the papers collating information on incidences in Nigeria; an often heart-breaking exercise.
Through that process, we have read several reports, the most recent being about out a man who allegedly set his wife on fire with a burning stove in Lagos last month. We read about a woman who allegedly stabbed her husband to death in Bayelsa; a man who allegedly bit off his wife’s nose and then was allegedly murdered by her relatives while she was recovering in the hospital; and the case of the woman who doused her husband’s genitals with hot water over infidelity.
Many of the victims were women; but as the foregoing examples show, there were also a few male victims. As horrifying and dismaying as these incidences are, my goal in this article is not to focus totally on them but to give a broader picture of domestic violence.
Firstly, these incidences are, by no means, all the cases of domestic violence. They are a tiny portion of the serious cases of domestic violence that occur each year. Many cases, including those leading to fatality and hospitalisation, go unreported.
Domestic violence is an issue that attracts silence; a silence engendered by shame, fear, stigma, and cultural taboos. According to the most recent National Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), with data from 2008, at least a third of women in Nigeria, a country of 160 million people, have suffered physical violence.
Moreover, these cases that we read about in the papers are the sensational cases. There are many cases that I hear about often in my line of work which are often much quieter in manifestation, involving slaps, shoving, small bruises to the body, rapes that are borne silently in the middle of the night. What they have in common with the stories that make the papers is, among other things, their damaging effect on self-esteem, their often devastating inter-generational impacts, and their adverse effect on health and productivity.
More importantly, domestic abuse does not simply end at physical violence. Indeed, physical violence often comes at the end of emotional abuse, verbal abuse, financial abuse, isolation and intimidation. Emotional abuse takes on different kinds of garments – shaming, bringing up past sins, failures and secrets to shame, neglect. It often starts with controlling behaviour, which is typically exhibited in the beginning stages of a relationship – control with respect to dressing, whom they could befriend, whom they could speak to on the phone, and when they could see family. In the beginning, jealousy and insecurity are often cast as love and care.
In my experience, financial abuse and emotional abuse are often closely linked. I often tell the story of one of my mother’s friends, when I was much younger, whose husband made sure that she did not work, had no access to finances, and could not buy even basic food stuff. He bought everything they needed, and what he forgot or refused to buy could not be used in the house. Yet, he bought her the most expensive shoes, bag, and jewellery. Behind him, she would sell his gifts to take care of things that he did not or would not.
I also had a friend whose husband also made it impossible for her to work, vetoing every idea that she brought up which could lead to employment or financial independence. In his jealousy, he forbade her from going out to visit friends or even from going grocery shopping. These sorts of stories do not make the dailies, and yet are as damaging.
And yet, in other instances, I have encountered abuse in men who made their wives work in a certain type of job, usually a job in which they would make good money, but also refuse their wives the support in carrying out domestic work, deny them the respect due to them as fellow humans, and insist on subjugating them in order to ensure that they knew who was boss.
Furthermore, domestic abuse is not selective as to age, level of education, or level of income, place of residence (whether rural or urban). Studying the information provided in the NDHS, I was surprised to find that women with primary and secondary education were more likely to have experienced physical violence in their homes than women with no education. I have met many educated, financially stable women who could not figure out how they came to be in situations in which their intimate partners hit them. I do not have the same information about men because the silence in such cases is thicker, and more women than men tend to be affected.
Perhaps, some of what I have discussed above seems simple. Yet, every day I meet women who find themselves in abusive situations; and we read about women doused in hot water, and burnt with pressing irons, and countless other things happen behind closed doors that no one will ever read about on the pages of a newspaper.
So what does one do with all the information that I have provided above? The most important thing is awareness, knowing what domestic abuse looks and feels like, knowing also that one is not alone.
Awareness goes beyond formal education. One often hears of formal education as an empowering tool. My experiences working with victims and survivors of domestic violence has shown me that empowerment is not just a matter of receiving formal education. There must be a strong sense of self, a healthy sense of self, a sturdy understanding of the role of boundaries. Often, these are things inculcated from childhood.
Many of us, however, come from dysfunctional families where we had few good role models. And sometimes even when we have had the best families and upbringing, life springs surprises on us. There may come a time to seek help, to speak out, or to find the courage to leave an unhealthy relationship.
Next week, I will focus on, amongst other things, power dynamics, the role of society and the existing and the ideal functions of law and policy.