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Theories Dictate Remedies

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II. Theories Dictate Remedies

 excerpted Wrom: BXFGGMEPYOQKEDOTWFAOBUZXUWLSZL of Domestic Violence in the African Context , 11 American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy and the Law 847-863 (2003) (73 Footnotes Omitted)

We care about the theories underlying analyses of domestic violence in Africa because they influence the actions that are perceived to be necessary to address the problem. For example, if domestic violence is rooted in gender inequality, then a variety of measures to improve the status of women are helpful; by contrast, if it is rooted in individual pathology, then therapeutic intervention is presumably called for. Indeed, perhaps one reason that psychological explanations are eschewed in Africa is that intensive therapy would be virtually impossible in that setting, due both to its unavailability and unaffordability. In this section, I point very briefly to the types of remedial interventions that appear to be called for by the various theories I have described as current in the African literature on domestic violence.

A. Rights Theories

Rights theories of domestic violence see abuse as resulting from a failure to recognize the individual human rights of women. Remedies based on such a theory would presumably involve proposals for legal reform and education about the legal and political rights of women. The provision of a domestic violence code, offering women orders of protection from the court system, would be a direct outcome of such an analysis. Legal reform of this type is repeatedly proposed in articles by African domestic violence activists. Others suggest use of international and regional conventions and mechanisms both to monitor the problem in their countries and to lobby African governments to incorporate their obligations under international law into domestic law, as has been done in South Africa.

B. Feminist Explanations

Feminist explanations of domestic violence, seeing it as a result of the pervasive inequality of men and women, counsel much broader intervention. Law reform would be part of a broader solution--for example, reform of laws concerning marriage, divorce, child maintenance, inheritance, and reproductive rights--as well as the provision of direct remedies for domestic violence. Given a lack of confidence in the capacity of the legal system--especially a male-dominated legal system--to deal with many of these issues, organizing campaigns and widespread public education about gender equality would also be in order. Activities to remove the economic and social domination of men would form part of this campaign, including the support of women-owned enterprises, education and training of female children and adult women. Socializing women to be more independent is also necessary, perhaps by changing school textbooks and promoting mass media campaigns. Of course, attempting to influence the socialization of women alone is insufficient; while girls are socialized to be submissive, boys are socialized to dominate them, and changing the first without the second might well lead to an increase in violence.

C. Cultural Explanations

Cultural explanations, which emphasize the power of tradition and norms within African culture, would lead to similar re-socialization campaigns and education to change attitudes about male-female relations in general. Again, law reform would be in order, for example, to extend property rights to women upon divorce; but there are limits to the effectiveness of this route because of the frequent disjuncture and/or lag between law and social change. In addition, many issues regarding family law are reserved under African constitutions for decision under customary law, immunizing them from change by the central legal system. Thus constitutional change would be necessary to pursue this route, and this would be costly or perhaps even impossible politically.

D. Society in Transition

What are the implications of seeing domestic violence as the outgrowth of a society in transition? Will it diminish with time as the society modernizes? In a generation or so, the conflicts arising from change may be less intense and the tensions raised by them should diminish. There is some basis in the American experience to hope that this will happen. For example, in the early part of the twentieth century, there was a large influx of Polish immigrants to Chicago. They were mostly from rural villages in Poland and brought with them the customs and beliefs of their previous life, including the custom of beating their wives and the belief that this was appropriate behavior within a marriage. Upon arrival to the United States, many of the wives learned that this was not legally acceptable conduct; in time, the children of those families began to develop different notions of marital relationships and of male-female relationships in general. But the transition was not easy. In fact, the stress of moving to an environment that was so different in terms of the norms concerning marriage and in which wives often worked as well as their husbands--not together on a farm, but in separate workplaces distant from their homes--seems to have exacerbated the problem. When the man felt that his position was threatened, he lashed out and tried to reassert his control by means of violence. Other studies show, however, that attitudes changed with the generations. One study of Italian immigrants' attitudes toward male dominance in the family in New York in the 1920s, for example, suggests that 64% of women under the age of thirty-five questioned the traditional authority of the husband within the family, while only 34% of those over thirty-five did the same. American-born wives also objected to wife beating by immigrant husbands in a way that first- generation women did not. Thus we can speculate that domestic violence caused by the disruption of traditional culture in Africa may also decrease as that culture adjusts to the many changes that have been thrust upon it and as new generations develop different expectations of marriage and family life.

E. Culture of Violence

Finally, what prescriptions result from regarding domestic violence as a product of a culture of violence in post-colonial Africa? The first and most obvious are measures of crime control such as more and better trained police, greater enforcement, and stiffer penalties for conviction of domestic violence offenses. Measures that are repeatedly suggested in South Africa include increasing the police resources devoted to domestic violence, training police to take domestic violence seriously, and increasing the penalties for conviction. Like most strategies focused on punishment, however, these activities need to be combined with remedial measures to address the conditions that have given rise to the culture of violence in the first place. Examples include the provision of educational opportunities and employment for young men, along with education about alternatives to violence as a way to resolve conflicts.


Clearly, the only adequate explanatory theory for the incidence of domestic violence in Africa is a multi-causal one. Thus, multiple remedies are required to decrease the rate of violence against women. This perhaps accounts for the lack of a grand theory of domestic violence in Africa and the co-existence of what might appear to be inconsistent theories. An author convinced that nothing short of a total reconstruction of gender relations in society will address the problem of domestic violence may, nonetheless, include advice about how to use provisions of international human rights conventions to accomplish piecemeal legal reforms. There is a certain pragmatism at work here, embracing whatever arguments are necessary to address the particular problem at hand while not making things worse for the future. This is what we often do here as well, but Schneider's interpretation of liberal democratic "rights" theories and feminist theories as existing in a creative dialectic with one another makes it transparent why this is the correct approach in Africa right now. To eliminate, or even just substantially diminish, domestic violence there will require, as in the United States, an effort on many fronts, including piecemeal legal reform as well as major social reconstruction and the investment of resources on the part of society to provide safety for women.

[a1]. Professor of Law and of Gender Studies, Northwestern University.

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