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Women in chains: wife-beatings in Africa

“It is like it is a normal thing for women to be treated by their husbands as punching bags. The Nigerian man thinks that a woman is his inferior. Right from childhood, right from infancy, the boy is preferred to the girl. Even when they marry out of love, they still think the woman is below them and they do whatever they want.”

–Obong Rita Akpan, former minister for women’s affairs in Nigeria

Sharon LaFraniere has a haunting article in Thursday’s NYT on the horrific state of women’s rights in sub-Saharan Africa. A wife is little more than property; from the poor to the educated and well-to-do, the culture of misogyny is alive and well, and the women have the bruises to show for it.

One in three Nigerian women reported having been physically abused by a male partner, according to the latest study, conducted in 1993. The wife of the deputy governor of a northern Nigerian province told reporters last year that her husband beat her incessantly, in part because she watched television movies. One of President Olusegun Obasanjo’s appointees to a national anticorruption commission was allegedly killed by her husband in 2000, two days after she asked the state police commissioner to protect her.

In Zambia, nearly half of women surveyed said a male partner had beaten them, according to a 2004 study financed by the United States – the highest percentage of nine developing nations surveyed on three continents.

In South Africa, researchers for the Medical Research Council estimated last year that a male partner kills a girlfriend or spouse every six hours – the highest mortality rate from domestic violence ever reported, they say. In Harare, Zimbabwe‘s capital, domestic violence accounts for more than 6 in 10 murder cases in court, a United Nations report concluded last year.

Yet most women remain silent about the abuse, women’s rights organizations say. A World Health Organization study has found that while more than a third of Namibian women reported enduring physical or sexual abuse by a male partner, often resulting in injury, six in seven victims had either kept it to themselves or confided only in a friend or relative.

The painful, horrible truth is there are few refuges for women that want to escape the violence. LaFraniere reports that Nigeria, for example only has two shelters for battered women — the U.S. has 1,200. The problem goes much deeper, because many women feel that their husbands do have a right to batter their wives.

About half of women interviewed in Zambia in 2001 and 2002 said husbands had a right to beat wives who argue with them, burn the dinner, go out without the husband’s permission, neglect the children or refuse sex.

To Kenny Adebayo, a 30-year-old driver in Lagos, the issue is clear-cut. “If you tell your wife she puts too much salt in the dinner, and every day, every day, every day there is too much salt, one day you will get emotional and hurt her,” he said. “We men in Africa hate disrespect.”

…Women’s rights activists say that the prevalence of abuse is emblematic of the low status of women in sub-Saharan Africa. Typically less educated, they work longer hours and transport three times as much weight as men, hauling firewood, water and sacks of corn on their heads.

The reporter interviews a man that has beaten his wife repeatedly. You almost don’t know where to begin. This is gulf of understanding that I cannot see how to bridge.

Emmanuel Osibuamhe, 36, now says he was wrong to beat his wife. But in a two-hour interview in his office, which doubles as barber shop, he insisted that she drove him to it by deliberately provoking him. Pacing the floor in freshly pressed pants, polished shoes and yellow shirt, he grew increasingly agitated as he recalled how she challenged his authority.

You can’t imagine yourself beating your wife?” he said. “You can’t imagine yourself being pushed to that level? But some people just push you over the edge, and you do things that you are not supposed to do. “For God’s sake,” he added. “You are the head of the home as the man. You must have a home that is submissive to you.”

Rosalynn Isimeto-Osibuamhe, who has broken with her husband, sang at a church service in Lagos. (Joao Silva for The New York Times)

To him, that means accepting that he is the head of the household and makes the final decisions. It also means that all property be in his name and that his wife ask his permission before she visits her family, he said. When Ms. Isimeto-Osibuamhe eventually sought help, others only seemed to support her husband’s view. She went to the police. “They told me I am not a small girl,” she recalled. “If I don’t want to be married, I should get divorced.”

She told her father-in-law. He advised her that “beating is normal.”

She told her local pastor, who counseled her that “I shouldn’t make him so angry,” telling her “whatever my husband says, I should submit.”

The question I just keep asking, as my mind spins at the incredible cruelty that these men dish out to women they have married is — why do they hate women? Why do they think so little of themselves that they need to punish their spouses to achieve a sense of adequacy? How on earth can this be fixed? It’s another case where the society as a whole must value its women — if she cannot count on family, friends or the justice system to value her autonomy and safety, she is left to suffer at the hands of an abusive spouse.

There is an excellent multimedia slideshow on the NYT site.

Thanks to House Blender and Julien’s List contributor Holly for the pointer.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding