African Voices Against Violence on Women Part I: Domestic Violence Is Not A Sexy Discourse
Violence against women is a global endemic that cuts across cultural, traditional, religious and socio-economic status. While silence has often masked this grievous crime against women, African women are beginning to speak out with one voice saying “enough is enough.” In this three-part series during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, I will be sharing interviews with three women from Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria as they talk about their fight and quest to ensure the safety of African women who find themselves in abusive situations. Meet Saida Ali, executive director of the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), as she talks about the shame, silence and stigma that means victims of domestic violence and society in general is still reluctant to talk about the taboo subject.
Belinda: Why the issue of domestic violence is important to you and everyone at Coalition On Violence Against Women (COVAW)?
Saida Ali: It’s important because first of all, there’s a lot of silence and that silence seems to be and is significant because people then stigmatise the people who go through different kinds of violence. There also seems to be a shifting in terms of who is to blame and who is responsible and whether it is justified. I want to say at COVAW, we believe it is important to address these issues and that violence against women constitutes a form of violation of human right and when we think about it, it is actually a crime because most of the countries in this region treat it as a form of assault. For instance, in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, it is treated as a form of assault. But when you go into what the Police are doing to address it, there isn’t any emphasis or special attention given to it because it is then seen as a domestic issue that people need to go and address as partners or as a family, which means it’s never treated or addressed. This is the focus and reason why it needs to be treated as a human rights issues and it’s a policy concern that demands attention and that’s why we give it attention.
What are some of the causes of domestic violence within Kenya society and other countries within East Africa where you might do similar work?
COVAW only works in Kenya but from a regional point of view, partners with other organisations through coalition work. This is not just within East Africa but we also focus on countries within Sub-Saharan region in terms of what the African Union commitments are and ensuring that women have access to their full human rights. Now, in terms of the causes – when you think about gender inequality in the different countries in Africa, you can see the similarities. For instance, when the last demographic and health survey was done in Kenya in 2008, women and men were asked why an intimate partner would violate the other. They gave a range of reasons and said things such as ‘burning food’ and this came up in both Uganda and Kenya that a man is found to beat up the wife if they burn the food or if they are seen not to take care of the children. Other reasons include, if the women goes to a particular place without asking for permission from their partner or is relating to and with someone that the partner is saying not to relate to. So instead of having a conversation about it, they resort to beating the person or emotionally abusing them and sometimes, not paying school fees or things like that as a form of punishment. In most cases, it’s a male partner violating a woman even though there are a few cases of women who violate or abuse their men, majority of the cases that are reported of and about domestic violence are of male partners abusing a woman. The statistics are equally alarming. For example, in Uganda for instance, 70 percent of the women that were interviewed according to the centre of bureau of statistics for Uganda, felt it was justified for a man to beat a woman for whatever reason the man gives and in Kenya, its 53 percent of women who felt the violence was justified. So when you think about these reasons around cooking, taking care of children, washing and ironing his clothes, when you think about them, the bottom-line is what culture expects from women in regards to a marriage situation. There are expectations that need to met and women are to do certain forms of work at the family level that perhaps women today, are thinking well, I don’t necessarily have to be the one doing this and conflict arises from that friction that comes with modern living.
There is shame and on the other hand, there is ignorance. So why are people still ashamed to talk about domestic violence within Kenya and why is the shame so deeply entrenched?
The shame is deep rooted because a lot of people or one of society’s expectations is that women are seen as people who should hold the family together. So the moment you speak about domestic violence, some people would immediately say there’s something wrong with that woman. She is not doing what she is supposed to be doing. But there are other reasons why people chose to keep quiet – some are economic, while others are related to children because women are like I don’t want to start the process of talking about this because the moment I talk about it, it means I have to get help and part of the help is how do you get out of that place where there is abuse. So women keep quiet and stay on and say they remain silent because of their children. There is also the trauma on children and people think, the more I talk about it, the more my children get stigmatised and so she keeps quiet. Also women keep quiet due to the way the police will respond or is known to respond. If a woman knows that when she goes to the police station to report a case of domestic violence, nothing is going to be done in relation to arresting the man or make sure her security is ensured, then she will keep quiet about it. Hence, security reasons are a huge part of the silence.
In terms of tradition, culture and gender roles, in what ways do these factors continue to fuel domestic violence against women? There are myths like women believing if their husband does not beat them, he does not love them. How do such myths fuel the violence, verbal and emotional and even sexual abuse against women?
It’s interesting that you mention sexual abuse because I’m aware of instances where someone, who has suffered physical violence, is also likely to go through sexual violence. But going back to the cultural aspect, in the rural areas you will find people going back to traditional ways of resolving conflicts. So people will sit with elders to resolve or to try and mediate where violence has happened, this becomes a big concern because if there is a fine, most of the people, what they are told to pay as a fine, they don’t usually pay. What it means is that most of the people that will be taken there will be told to reconcile, go back home and pay a certain amount of money to the woman or her family but they never do it. It then becomes an obstacle to women’s rights
How have you been able to influence the myth and thinking that some women have which is along the lines that if they have not been beaten by their husband, he does not love them?
Yes, there are communities where women are socialised to think that a man must hit you to show he is committed to you and he loves you. How we intervene is (through) one of our projects, Act Now, which is called FASA in Swahili. We go into the community and look around or do an assessment to see if this is a problem there. Then we do a number of activities that are related to raising awareness. That awareness phase is what is interesting in terms of prevention because our awareness looks at power dynamics – when we do training at the community level, our training model looks at what it means and how individuals at that community level or even at the family level interpret power and whether they understand that domestic violence or intimate partner violence is as a result of power dynamics or an equal power dynamics between partners. We do very simple exercises where different participants are drawn from community level. We look at things like how much time they spend with their children and what it means for the women to spend 95 percent of her time looking after the children while the man spends 5 percent. What does it mean when she says she does not want sex and the man is insisting on it? What does it mean when she is forced to have sex? Because most of the time, marital rape is never seen as a component of domestic violence, which in itself, is problematic. Our team includes the police, chiefs at community level, women leaders, who perhaps are doing work on the ground and are champions but are not seen as such, community health workers and local officials. Part of the work we do with them is to train them to question different groups at the community level and to hold people account. For example, if a woman comes and says she has been to the police to report an incident and was chased away, what can be done to ensure action is taken.
What is the government doing in terms of address the high rate of domestic violence and protect women, Kenya because what affects women affects society?
It will not be possible to answer that question without telling you what is happening in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. In Kenya for example, we have a law/bill that has been pending in parliament but has not been passed. In Uganda, they have the Domestic Protection Bill or the Domestic Violence Bill, which since 2005, has been shelved. In Tanzania, they only use the Marriage Act, and one of the clauses says that people in marriage situations are not supposed to use corporal punishment towards each other. So just listening to the wording the one in Tanzania uses and you see what the gaps are. In terms of what women’s organisations have done, COVAW is among a group of women’s organisations that had a dialogue with the attorney general to ask why the family protection bill for instance had not been passed. In parliament, business is done in a way where they have a diary or schedule on how bills are going to be passed. The one on family protection was shelved around 2004/2005, same time as Uganda. So what is happening now is that our constitution is very progressive in terms of gains on women’s rights, the question we have been asking parliamentarians and the attorney general is why is that bill not being given priority and attention? We have also used the media to talk about what is in the bill. Organisations are doing advocacy with the government, we are using media to educate the public. And part of what we are doing with women in the community is to say, when your member of parliament comes, ask him why he has not done anything about domestic violence or intimate partner violence and why he is not one of those speaking about the passing the bill. We have to educate people to understand what is in the bill, so they can stand up and defend why the bill needs to be passed – and say the bill is there to protect women as an important pat of society. We define violence against women as a form of discrimination. Some forms of domestic violence constitute torture. COVAW is not the only organisation doing this work, there are lots of organisations training local people, magistrates and more to make sure they understand when a case is brought to them, that it’s a domestic violence issue. So there’s a lot of work around training and awareness going on and there’s also work to get people to act and get things done at the community level.
What will it take to get society to realise that domestic violence is also costly to society not just the women?
One of the most difficult things to address and attack, if you will allow me to use that word, is to attack the cultural underpinning that makes it so easy for society to accept violence. You are right about the economic cost of violence and you would be surprised that there are certain people who are really educated and hold very high positions in society but they are the same ones who revert to the traditional ways of being able to say ‘oh, this is what the expectations are or should be in terms of or in regards to my wife and partner.’ The biggest problem we have is addressing the attitude that people have because they may have the knowledge and know that it’s a violation of that person to abuse them, but unless we change that mindset that accepts, anticipates and therefore perpetuates violence, it will be very difficult and that mindset is very much influenced by the cultural underpinning. And people like to run back to their African culture and really it’s an abuse of what African culture is by saying a man in African culture is meant to do this or a woman in African culture is meant to do this. So that term has been abused to the point that we don’t even know what is culture and what is not. For me, culture is not static and culture should be based on a way of life because the way of life today, is different to what the life of my great-grandmother was and I should not be reverting to what she was doing only when it is convenient. I think a lot of men do and this then introduces the issue of masculinity and what men have understood to be what it is and means to be a man. Hence, it’s not just about culture but also what I see as masculinity in crisis. People like to say a man, an African man is not supposed to do this or help his wife with this but they have certain understandings of what it’s to be a man that actually constitutes violation and this is what is seen as the cool man. Who is the cool man and what does the cool man look like? I think the cultural underpinning and masculinity – unfortunately, one form of masculinity, the violent hegemonic form of masculinity seems to have alleviated the main form of masculinity and that’s problematic.
If civil society got its act together and the government got its act together, what are the advantages and changes you see taking place if the government and everyone takes serious actions against domestic violence?
Beyond civil society and government, the common man and woman and people, if we all got our act together – first there is a lot of funding that goes into domestic violence. So if we got our act together, that funding that goes into responding to domestic violence could be used to do other things. It could also be governments starting to treat domestic violence seriously as a human rights violation crime and taking action where people need to be arrested and held responsible for their actions. From a civil society perspective, I think we sometimes shy away from talking about domestic violence. We define violence very narrowly or we shy away from it because people think it is an old course and now we focus on MDGs and talking about poverty. It’s like people are talking about something more sexy than talking about domestic violence without looking at the interconnection. I think if civil society, if we begin to look at inter-connectivity, it would become easy to address domestic violence because while talking about children’s rights, you can see a link between the violation of certain children’s rights because they are in the same environment where domestic violence is happening.