African Voices Against Violence on Women Part III: Culture is No Justification for Domestic Violence
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 Josephine Chukwuma, founder and executive director of Project Alert on Violence Against Women, Nigeria. She tells us why we must never use culture as an excuse for gender violence.
Belinda: Different people have different things they are passionate about. Why did you decide on the issue of violence against women as an area where you could make a difference?
Josephine Chukwuma: I got into what I’m doing based on the environment I grew up in, the environment around me and what I kept seeing – it seemed as if there was a huge tolerance for different forms of violence against women. And I could not deal with it. I kept questioning it and I said to myself, this is what I want to do. I had a lot of questions growing up as an African woman. A lot of why, why, why as I saw things happening all around me especially after a neighbour’s husband died and I saw the way the widow was being treated, a roommate in university, who goes out on a date and comes back with a black eye, a cousin who was in an abusive marriage and does not want to speak out. So all of these things, I kept asking why and what’s going on? This was one of the reasons I guarded my independence very fiercely. I come from a loving home and my father trained all his girls, six of us. So imagine the irony of coming from a loving home and going into a society where you are made to feel like a second class citizen by actions and inactions. That was a shocking thing for me.
Would you say we are at a stage where violence against women is so culturally ingrained and we are using culture as an excuse for bad behaviour?
It’s an excuse. It’s just a justification and its people using it to justify their actions and I tell people at any opportunity I have – I’m an African woman, I was born in Africa, the easiest denial Africans want to hold on to is come on, we are Africans. Don’t copy Europeans, their culture is not ours. I say there are certain things in life, whether you are Asian, European or African, one thing is constant, human life is scared. Every human being has rights and everyone is entitled to human rights. I say to people between culture and human rights, human right takes preeminence. I mean culture is made/created by human beings. We make culture and should be open to changing it. Culture is not static, culture is very dynamic. So, when there is a conflict between culture and human rights, there is no doubt that human right takes preeminence over culture. People hide under the guise of culture, tradition and religion just to perpetrate all these acts and try to get away with it. They are justification, they are not reasons.
Why are we still silent about domestic violence?
First, I would like to say the issue of silence is rooted in culture and the whole idea that this is of the private and public domain. Africans, though now it is changing, we are raised to be ashamed of certain things outside and that’s traditional. Unfortunately people are doing certain things shamelessly now, they do shameless things but they don’t want people to talk about it. I have a problem with that because in traditional society and honestly speaking, I remember when I was growing up in Lagos in the 70s, I had an aunty who the husband used to beat and this particular aunt was very close to my dad and my dad loved her so much and they were first cousins and we loved her too. She got married to this abusive man and hardly a week will go by that she will not run to our house with a torn top and some little bruises to her face and I’m like what is happening and what is going on here? She will mention the guy and my father will say she should come in and she is not going back to him. For me, that is citizen’s response by giving her shelter. I say this because some years ago, when we wanted to start our shelter, people were saying shelter is a foreign thing and asking if it is because ‘you went for your masters in the Netherlands and you are trying to import it?’ I told them I was not trying to import anything, we have always had this. The only difference now is that I’m making it formal because we had it informally, whereby the extended family system used to look out for every member of the society. In traditional society, if a man rapes a little girl, you walk naked in the market square. If you beat your wife, the other women will boo you and tell you to go and beat a fellow man like you and stop using your power on this woman. These things were there. We are all very faceless in the city and most cases of extreme domestic and sexual violence occurs more in the cities. Maybe in the villages, maybe they are not talking much but from what we see on the ground and hear, we see and hear most of these from the cities because of the faceless nature of the city. Silence has been used for a very long time as a weapon to further perpetrate acts of sexual and domestic violence. The whole issue of stigma and poor response because let’s face it, if you are victimised or I am victimised, I will only feel courageous to speak about my victimisation if I know that structures are there to respond positively to my situation. What is the point of further going to open my wound if I know you are to going to put iodine and plaster on it for me? What’s the point because the primary victimisation is the act itself. The secondary victimisation is the blame and the shame. Silence explores situation and in Nigeria, we have been having horrible cases of domestic violence and horrible sexual abuse of young girls and even children and that’s because we are not talking about it and that’s because the first step towards solving a problem is admitting that there is a problem. When you drag the problem underground, you allow it to develop a life of its own. People say it is an economic issue. I say no, it is not about economic issues. It’s all about impunity and people tolerating that a woman is a play thing. News about women is nothing. When a woman is attacked and acid is poured on her, no one says anything but when man is attacked, heaven wants to fall. Of the 300 plus cases we have had to deal with, about 75 to 80 percent are little girls below the age of 14 (7, 3, 4, 6 and 2 years old children) are being violated and people talk about the way they dress. How would a little girl like that dress to attract an old man. Are we to start dressing our little in long trousers and skirts?
Is it fair to say that domestic violence and sexual violence is on the rise against women in Nigeria?
I may not be able to say that. I like to play it safe. If you say it is on the rise, was there a baseline study done at some point that says five years ago, there were five reported cases but now says five years later, there are 20 reported cases. Unfortunately, there was never a baseline study.
In terms of root causes, people have different reasons but in Nigeria, what are some of the root causes?
I think it’s more of patriarchy. The patriarchal structures we have guide the socialisation in the ways girls and boys are socialised. Boys are socialised from a young age to feel you are the man, you must be strong, and you cannot be doing this and that. While the girl is told you are a girl, you need to be a woman, come on get into the kitchen or you don’t talk like that. It starts that way and even in families, you find that the boy is growing up and feeling that he is superior to his sisters. Boys are socialised to be aggressive, its like, you see what you want; you go get it and all that. While the girl told, you need to be a lady. It is only a few of us that grow up to fly over that and refuse to be constrained but a lot of people grow up in that. So it is the socialisation, the patriarchal structure, the manipulation and misinterpretation of religion. Same with culture and these are the various structures we need to first deal with. We must look at the economy and finances but for me, that explanation is too simplistic to say it is because of the economy. If it is because of the economy, why do rich men and comfortable men beat their wives? It should only be the poor people doing it but we still have a lot of impunity with rich men who beat their wives and girlfriends, and say there is nothing you can do about it. Who are you going to report me to? The Inspector General was my classmate; you are wasting your time. The Commissioner is my friend, I play golf with him. Impunity has become the order of the day. So it goes beyond the order of economic reasons. Yes, economic reasons come in at some point but it is not the main cause.
Does Nigeria have a domestic violence bill in place?
We do in some states. As activists, in Nigeria, what we have been using and still using to a large extent, is the criminal code because the criminal code is operational – we have two different codes, the penal code for northern Nigeria and the criminal code operational in southern Nigeria. The penal code is guided by sharia law for the Muslim north. The criminal code is for the predominantly Christina south. In the criminal code we have various laws on various forms of assault – indecent assault, grievous bodily harm and all that. So this is the law we have been using but the problem with this law is that it is criminal in the sense that if a wife uses this law, the husband could go in for up to 7 years. If the law is to be enforced to the latter, which I don’t have a problem with that – if you don’t have a problem hitting me, I don’t have a problem locking you up. But due to the family situation, the extended family system and the fact that a lot of women are hugely dependent on their husbands and so the next thought is yes, she will go to the police but when the police want to arrest the husband, she will say I didn’t want you people to arrest him. I just wanted you to talk to him because the family is on one side threatening her and saying you took our son to the police, you want them to lock him up. Okay, let them lock him up and let us see how you will come back to us. Then she stands there thinking about feeding the children, their school, the house and she throws her hands and legs up and gives up. To try and respond to the extent of this criminal nature, Project Alert and some other organisations, years ago came together and put a bill together on domestic violence and with the support of UNIFEM, now UN Women, and some support from the British DFID and more, we did some advocacy work around 12 states of the federation and submitted that bill to 12 state house assemblies and this was like 6/7 years ago but out of this 12 state house of assemblies that we submitted this bill to, which is a domestic violence bill, I am sad to say only four passed it – Lagos state, Cross River state, Ebonyi state and Jigawa state. The rest, it never saw the light of day. Of the four states that passed it, it is only in Lagos that we are trying to implement that law. In Lagos state, there is a domestic violence law. At the federal level, a coalition of NGOs under the name Legislative Advocacy Coalition on Violence against women, we came together about 10/11 years ago to try and put together one big bill that will try to cover every form of violence against women, be it physical, sexual or psychological, harmful traditional practices, neglect and abandonment and all the things women suffer from in the home situation. We tried to do that and we put together this very beautiful bill but to date, that bill has not seen the light of day at the federal level.
In terms of changing mindset, how challenging a task is it?
Attitudes are about the most difficult to change in people but not impossible. People are so set in their ways and so for us as Project Alert, in the last 2/3 years, we have not given up on older people (laughs) but we are trying to start them young. We are thinking of and have started going into schools with these issues, so that they grow up with the right frame of mind because a lot of people are already set in their ways. While we are trying to slam such people into prison, let us try to save these young ones little by little.
You mentioned earlier that you have a shelter but what other forms of rehabilitation do you have in place for battered women?
Well, Project Alert, five years ago we started advocating for an integrated response to the issue of domestic violence and all forms of violence against women. What I mean by integrated response – We are not medical workers or social welfare officers. So what we did was to start a partnership with relevant agencies like the women affairs ministry, ministry of health, social welfare, and try to develop a data bank of who is doing what and in what area for easy referral. For example, when a case come to us, if it is a criminal issue like rape, we need to refer it to the police. If we have an insensitive police officer that is not responding to the issue, we have a problem there. If we have to go to the hospital and if the victim does not get to see the doctor soon enough to take a specimen and all that, you have problem. So we try to partner with groups on that. But as an organisation, we have three main programme areas – Research and documentation, human rights education and support services programme, where we are dealing with victims, live and direct. The support we give them is: counselling, legal aid, legal advice and take up cases for them in court or in criminal cases where they prosecute, we hold watching brief and then of course, we have the shelter. All these are subject to availability of funds.
How can we continue to empower women to speak out because speaking out is the first step to recovery for the woman?
We need to continue with the work of sensitisation. You can never over flog sensitisation. You can not over-emphasise awareness creation and sensitisation. These days, more people are speaking out as a result of advocacy work done over the years. People are now mustering courage to become confident and speak out and say to themselves, if I speak out, help will come my way, which 10/15 years ago, that was not the case and that is why I think there is increased reporting in the fact that people are coming forward due to sensitivity to the issue. Mothers are calling for their daughters, sisters calling for their sisters and friends calling for their friends. So a lot of awareness creation is happening. And also, we need to bring up our girls to believe in themselves and their own capability, so that they can do things for themselves, not wait for a husband to come and buy them, cars. I once met a young lady who said she could not wait for her husband to come and buy her a car, why can’t she think she can take care of herself. So we need to empower our young girls to grow up believing in themselves and placing value on themselves, setting goals and striving. We need to invest in our girls because a lot of young girls have lost their self esteem because you see a lot of women, who allow someone else to define them. I mean someone tells you are stupid and you imbibe it. My 8-year-old, if you tell her she is stupid, she will tell you “I am not stupid, I am very smart and I don’t know if you are.” She stands up for herself. I tell her, keep speaking positively to yourself about yourself. Simples!
What is your message to women, who find themselves in violent situation?
Violence against women and domestic violence is at a huge cost to this country. If we put our ears to the ground and really investigate the deaths of women, with the exception of ill health, we will find that some of those sudden deaths were as a result domestic violence. So my message will be that – charity begins at home. For as long as there is no peace in the home, there cannot be peace in society. No young man was born abusive. It is what he has imbibed growing up that turned him into the violent creature he became. Environment makes people who they are. So we need to go back to the drawing board and get it right, right from the family. The family is the microcosm of the larger society. So we need to get it right from the home. We need to get it right.
Read Full Article: Domestic Violence: Its Not A Private Matter