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Domestic violence

Miles apart, ­sisters in pain

by Damilola Oyedele

In depth

Anti-rape protest in Delhi.

Anti-rape protest in Delhi.

Abuse of women is found everywhere in the world, irrespective of culture, continent or social status. Most countries adhere to the principle of gender equality in theory, or even by law, but many countries not in practice. It is a good sign when civil society begins to oppose domestic violence – as is increasingly happening in Nigeria and India.

On 24 June 2011, Titilayo went to her office at a bank in Lagos, Nigeria. She made arrangements to leave work early as it was her husband’s birthday, succeeding in beating the crazy Lagos traffic in time to cook a big birthday dinner. By midnight, Titilayo was dead, brutally murdered by Arowolo – her husband.

According to police reports, the marriage had been characterised by violence. Titilayo had moved out at least on ten occasions only to return after a few days. Sometimes she showed up at work in bruises, and told her colleagues that she fell down the stairs.

On that evening, the couple had quarrelled as they normally did. The neighbours were used to the fights and had stopped caring. By morning, the wife was dead. A manhunt was launched for the husband.

The public outcry in Nigeria was deafening. Although domestic violence and resulting deaths of women are not rare, Nigerians were shocked by the brutality in which Titilayo died. Autopsy reports showed that she had received 76 stab wounds to the chest, abdomen, neck, shoulders, eyes, which could not have been self-inflicted as claimed by her husband before court. On 21 February 2014, the Lagos High Court found Arowolo guilty of his wife’s murder and sentenced him to death. He is being held in a maximum prison pending appeals.

Parallels of ­powerlessness

Thousands of miles away in India, Shobana has a sad story to tell. In her case, her abusers are her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law who beat her almost on a daily
basis. On these occasions, she curls up in a corner as they hit her. Her husband has four brothers and three sisters; all live on the family compound in Delhi. Shobana is expected to cook, wash clothes and dishes, clean the compound and run errands for her mother-in-law.

“My husband does not beat me, but he has never stopped them when they beat me. He said that he married me because his mother told him so, so they get someone to do the household chores,” she says.

As for Toyin, another woman in Nigeria, her in-laws are good to her, but her husband beats her for the smallest reasons. She has become an expert at using make-up to hide her bruises as she goes to work. “I am educated and I have a job”, she explains, “but which other man would marry me with three children? It’s
a shameful thing in Nigeria to have a failed marriage.”

Titilayo’s murder is not enough of a warning to make Toyin leave her abusive husband. Rigid social norms are stronger than the urge to save her life and secure her wellbeing.

According to a 2013 global study by the World Health Organisation, 70 % of women worldwide have experienced some form of abuse by an intimate partner. The 2008 Nigerian National Demographic Health Survey estimates that 28 % of married women have experienced at least one form of domestic violence. 31 % of India’s married women have been physically abused, according to the 2009 National Family Health Survey.

Domestic violence (DV) is about power and the need for control. In many societies, the male child is raised to assume he is superior. He feels challenged later in life if a woman refuses to worship him, and may resort to violence to subdue her.

A patriarchal system entrenched in cultures and traditions, and faulty support systems have been blamed for the persistence of this scourge in Nigeria and India. Victims have learned to stay silent and not publicise what is generally considered to be a family matter. In Nigeria as in India, many women choose to stay in abusive marriages because of the stigmatisation which accompanies single or divorced women. The police do not help in either country. They have been re­ported to advise victims to go home and settle the issues, saying that women have to accept to be disciplined by their husbands when they ‘misbehave’.

Wave of protest in Nigeria

Many Nigerians regard Titilayo’s vicious murder to be a turning point in the attitude of society towards domestic violence. A rising number of families now take cases of assault against their married daughters more seriously. The country, in recent times, has witnessed a higher number of cases of DV against women being reported to the police.

Religious organisations, which hitherto had attributed such issues to spiritual or demonic attacks on marriages, are now changing their positions. Due to cultural and spiritual sensibilities, most of them would not outright recommend divorce, but would advocate “temporary” separation. Up to now, faith-based organisations had shunned divorced women, allowing them no leadership roles, but recent events have changed the perception towards this group. Churches as well as mosques now offer counselling and even economic support to women who have had to leave their spouses.

The courts of law are also taking the matter of DV more seriously. Magistrates used to advise squabbling couples to “go and maintain the peace” and explore reconciliation possibilities even in cases of domestic assault brought before them.

Despite the changing attitudes, many cases of domestic assault are still not persecuted. Only cases of murder and grievous bodily harm get charged to court. DV persists due to a faulty justice system. The National Assembly has hitherto refused to incorporate international instruments and conventions that protect women into Nigerian law, on grounds that some of their provisions violate cultural and religious beliefs.

However, part of Nigerian society is ahead of its judicial system. Josephine Effah Chukwuma, Executive Director of Project Alert, a Nigerian NGO that works to protect women’s rights, says public perception and understanding of do­mestic violence and its negative consequences are growing. “Significant progress has been made as a result of mass sensibilisation”, she claims. “Fathers and brothers are seeking help for their daughters and sisters now.“

Chukwuma stresses that “the silence has been broken”. She says the support systems are getting better, but there is definitely room for further improvement, especially on the part of government agencies (the police, hospitals and courts). “Most of the support services are given by NGOs,” she points out. Meanwhile, most women in Nigeria’s disadvantaged north are still treated as second-class citizens, including physical and sexual abuse (see: Damilola Oyedele, D+C/E+Z 2014/06, p. 263).

Degraded women in India

The 2013 Human Development Report by UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) stated that India ranked 132nd of 148 countries in gender inequality. Despite the educational and economic advancement of women in this country, the patriarchal system con­tinues firmly entrenched.

Cequin, a non-profit organisation funded by the Government of Delhi, works mostly with Muslim women from poor households. Its campaign, Awazuthao or Raise Your Voice, organises rallies, safety walks and other activities aimed at changing societal attitude towards women.

The collective coordinator Bushra Qmar says that DV remains a delicate subject in Indian society, and while it is easier for women in the lower strata of society to report it – although the police may not follow up on it –, there are hardly reported cases among the upper echelon of society. A community mobiliser in the same organisation, Amin Mohammed, attributes this to the need of the upper class to “look respectable”. An abused woman would hardly ever alert the justice system, he maintains.

Similarly to the murder of young banker Titilayo in Nigeria, the gang rape and subsequent violent death of a young student in Delhi on 16 December 2012, shocked Indian society and triggered a lot of public agitation. A number of new fast-track courts for rape cases were created, however, there are still many loopholes in the justice system. A culture whereby women are regarded as commodities is still deeply ingrained, especially in the rural areas.

One gruesome example are the incidences of dowry deaths which remain the worst form of DV – dowry deaths being murders perpetrated by husbands or in-laws on women whom they consider to not have brought enough dowry to their in-law family. The National Crime Bureau Records showed that there were 8,233 reported dowry deaths in 2012 and 8,618 in 2011. Despite the existence of the Dowry Prohibition Act, only 35.8 % of the per­petrators were convicted in 2011. The conviction rate in 2012 was 32 %.

Shobana, after staying in her mother’s home for a few months, is returning to her husband’s home in a few days time. With an uncertain look in her eyes, she says: “Is it okay if I do not let you take my picture? I do not want to spoil things with my husband, I want to give him another chance.”

In London, a recent conference on sexual violence in conflict put a spotlight on sexual abuse in wartime. However, most women worldwide suffer abuse not in war, but daily in their own homes; they are tortured and murdered not by enemy troops, but their own husbands and in-laws. India, Nigeria and in fact, all societies need to do more in creating awareness that it is not safe to endure abuse, and support all who need help to get out of abusive relationships.

Damilola Oyedele is Senior Correspondent, Foreign Affairs/Gender, at THISDAY Newspaper. She lives in Abuja, Nigeria.
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