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Winter 2003 Issue # 3
The "othered": Reflections on Violence
By Penninah Ogada

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Something is peculiarly amiss about the physical, social and emotional security of women all over the world. As UNIFEM prepares to lead all of us to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25th 2002 the one compelling question: "WHY?" remains unanswered about both reported and unreported acts of violence against women. Literature reviews, - including the print media reports, confirm that violence against women is so universal it knows no cultural, class, educational, regional, political, racial or economic boundaries. From the United States to India, Australia, South America, Europe and Africa, incidents of violence against women occur all the time in different forms. Yet in many developing countries culture is blamed and proponents would have us believe that culture is static and mean towards women, but is it? In spite of the risks in generalizing reasons for violence against women its universal occurrence must be observed as an ugly, hurtful desire of the powerful to control the vulnerable. For various reasons vulnerability intersects with women and children, making them the most likely victims of violence in any society.

Consider these global facts provided by UNIFEM:

  • In the United States a woman is battered every 15 seconds.
  • A woman is raped every 23 seconds in the republic of South Africa.
  • Every minute somewhere in the United Kingdom somebody calls police for assistance related to domestic violence.
  • According to WHO database on Violence Against Women, 47% of Bangladeshi women have been subjects of physical abuse in their lifetime by an intimate partner.

Now consider these recent items from current print media:

  • King Mswati the 3rd of Swaziland has his guards abduct an 18 year old Zena Mahlangu from school to be his wife number 10 following the "reed dance", an annual Swazi ceremony at which society has teen age girls dancing bare chested.
  • Amina Lawal's fate hangs in the air as human rights advocates publicize and advocate that she be spared death by stoning after she was pronounced guilty by Sharia law in northern Nigeria because she has a child out of wedlock.
  • Ugandan Vice President, Dr. Speziosa. W. Kazibwe divorced her lifelong husband accusing him of battery.
  • In Israel 11% of women have experienced some form of beating at home. The alleged ritual killing of women continue in Guidad Juarez, Mexico.
  • The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in Lusaka, Zambia recorded 903 cases of violence against women during January to September 2002.
  • Burough President, Adolfo Carrion of Bronx, New York is quoted as saying: "If it were a disease, it'd be declared and epidemic. . Domestic violence is one of the most insidious abuses in out society."

It is not clear if incidents of violence against women have increased in recent times, or if the improved information and communication technology helps to highlight and draw attention to cases that previously may have gone unknown. But the United Nations reports an overall increase in incidents of domestic violence, for instance the 2000 report reflects 31% of women world wide have experienced gender violence.

Its insidious nature
Allegations of domestic violence pit the victim's word against that of the perpetrator, therefore, arbitration requires good will and impartial assessment of social values - guided by human rights principles. It is ironic however that the arbitrators function within social systems that are biased against the victims in the first place. Social standing and fear of loss of face, cultural practices, ignorance, the amorphous line between public and private sphere, and, the need to protect the victim's reputation and against future incidents, are some reasons for reluctance to report, or silence that surrounds such incidents.

There are distinctions to be made here between the societal context of violence in developed versus developing countries. There are welfare institutions in developed countries that cater for shelter and emotional needs of victims - such as transition homes, and social and legal counseling. These format least a rudimentary support system that is often not enough and often cannot prevent the murder of women who seek such shelter-by their batterers. In developing countries the victims are caught in transition. The traditional family ties have weakened by economic needs in a developing cash economy, yet the public sector has not moved fast to replace the disappearing social and emotional functions to family members. The aggrieved have no alternative to family accommodation and risk further violence, including loss of life, if they report the violence. This exacerbates the sense of helplessness especially for victims who have been socialized to internalize their servitude and to denigrate self worth.

Traditional interventions are lost without replacement. For example, I recall with amusement an incident during my childhood on a rural Kenyan homestead. A married cousin had come back home with a broken leg she suffered when her irate husband pushed her during a one-sided domestic brawl. Apparently my cousin's crime was that she did not have the warm water for her husband's evening bath ready at the precise moment. When my cousin's husband accompanied by his kin came to seek the return of their wife as required by culture, the young men in my community made them sit on dirt floor in their Sunday bests, while slapping and verbally taunting them about the treatment of my cousin. Culture would not allow them to fight back. In any case they were outnumbered and would not do anything to further risk the marriage. In patrilineal systems a woman sets up her new home, upon marriage, amongst the husband's kin who in turn support her settlement and absorb her into the extended family.

Culture set limits for permissible acts of humiliation within an age group in good faith and shared responsibility for the correction of behavior. Intervention by the elders came as a last resort. Community provided space for tempers to cool off following conflict, and supervised reconciliation, as well as overseeing the welfare of the children of feuding spouses. With the disintegration of family ties, poverty, joblessness and lack of buying power, increased population and diminishing resources, the strong are venting anger and frustration on the vulnerable, and the situation is critical in systems without institutionalized welfare safety nets. Inequitable development projects, material culture, all exacerbate the impact.

Women are increasingly becoming more creative in finding ways to survive, and redefine their sense of well being and that of " a good woman" under these circumstances of change and modernization. Some work harder to make themselves more useful by contributing to the family income in exchange for security and respect. Other women work harder for wages and invest in the education of their children whom they see as their only hope for the future. Others are circumstantially forced to cohabit with partners precariously for material support. All round women take high risks to their health and welfare. One wonders: 1) if some effects of globalization are equivalent to forms of violence with feminine face as the struggle for survival becomes more acute between the powerful and the vulnerable, the "haves" and "have nots", 2) what roles we can play privately and publicly as individuals to reduce violence against women.


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