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Theories that Appear in the African Literature of Domestic Violence

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I. Theories that Appear in the African Literature of Domestic Violence

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

Five general categories of theory appear in the literature on domestic violence in Africa: (1) rights theories; (2) feminist theories;(3) "cultural" explanations; (4) "society-in-transition" explanations; and (5) "culture of violence" explanations. Interestingly, explanations explicitly based upon economics are relatively rare, as are theories that ground the phenomenon in individual psychology or family dysfunction, although these are common in the United States literature.

A. Rights Theories

Most African constitutions and legal systems follow Western models based upon individual rights, and most African countries have ratified numerous international covenants that either explicitly or implicitly interpret domestic violence to be a violation of human rights. Despite this fact, theories about domestic violence based on the assertion of individual human rights are not frequent in the African literature. While some articles on domestic violence in Africa draw a link between freedom from violence and human rights guarantees in various international charters, the rights-based arguments often appear to be tacked on and to fit uneasily with the author's overall analysis of the problem. For example, Fitnat N-A Adjetey, after discussing domestic violence in Ghana as one small part of a much larger pattern of violence against women, including female genital mutilation, rape, child marriage, widowhood rites, widow inheritance, and female religious bondage (trokosi), includes in her article advice about how specific provisions of international human rights conventions might be used to accomplish piecemeal legal reforms. Yet if domestic violence is just one manifestation of a much larger phenomenon of gender inequality and violent treatment of women, piecemeal legal reforms are unlikely to provide an effective remedy.

In addition, there is a potential and potent conflict between basing gender equality upon rights theory, with its notions of individual autonomy, and women's lived experience as relational. As Robin West and others have noted, women live their lives in relationship, in a complex web of connections, rather than as individual atoms. The conflict between the language of individual rights and a more relational notion of the self is even more pronounced in the African context. It is not only that women experience themselves as embedded in relationships but also that traditional African societies typically are not based upon the individualism that underlies much of our social thought. In particular, the family and its interests are considered prior to the individual, and a woman's status is a derivative one. Thus, for example, her reproductive capacity is considered "owned" by the husband's lineage after marriage. In a context where the notion of personal autonomy is not common, especially for women, claims articulated in terms of individual rights and equality may indeed sound foreign. They also are unlikely to attract the widespread support necessary to effect social change.

Nonetheless, rights language and remedies based on it coexist with other theories in the writing on domestic violence in Africa. Professor Schneider notes how the language of individual rights--natural rights theory--performed an influential function in the development of women's rights claims in the United States, as the Seneca Falls Declaration transformed claims that might otherwise appear trivial, domestic, or private into universal rights, forming a dialectical "moment" that universalized those claims and helped overcome privatization and themes of personal blame. Human rights conventions, declarations and resolutions, and international conferences today perform the same function for women raising claims to the right to be free of violence in Africa by transforming claims that might otherwise be seen as trivial and domestic into universal rights.

B. Feminist Explanations

In contrast to rights theories, explicitly feminist explanations are frequent in the domestic violence literature in Africa. Indeed, it is difficult to avoid interpreting domestic violence in Africa in terms of pervasive gender inequality. Almost every traditional African society was patriarchal, and a woman's place within this scheme was decidedly subordinate. Institutionalization of this inequality remains common in African customary law. For example, under most African systems of customary law, women have no right to inherit from their husbands, are not regarded as sharing ownership of marital property, are excluded from ownership of land, and are almost without remedy upon divorce.

Because gender inequality is so widespread, domestic violence is often discussed by African authors as simply a brief subsection in articles on violence against women in general or about gender inequality in Africa. The conclusion reached by these authors is that unless the systemic inequality between men and women is addressed, the problem of violence will persist. For example, Rosemary Ofei-Aboagye wrote one of the first studies of domestic violence in Ghana; she published it in an American journal of gender and law in 1994. She begins by simply documenting the incidence of domestic violence among women seeking assistance from a legal aid office in Accra, seeing this documentation of the problem as an essential first step in dealing with it. But Ofei-Aboagye's analysis of the women's comments leads her to attribute domestic violence in large part to the subordinate position, passivity, and economic dependence of married women in her society. She concludes that [a]lthough there is no one answer to this dilemma, changing the social order which teaches a woman that she is incapable of even small decisions and confines her to waiting for her husband to lead the way in all that she does, must be our primary focus. In short, the struggle against domestic violence is clearly seen as just one part of a much broader context, the struggle for gender equality.

C. Cultural Explanations

Another set of causal theories in the emerging African literature emphasizes the power of tradition and norms within African culture as explaining the widespread incidence of domestic violence. Some see this connection as a direct one, arguing that wife battering is regarded as normal within traditional African culture. In support of this proposition, one author describes interviews at the Social Welfare Office in the Ibadan region of Nigeria, at which police officers "remind wives that Yoruba culture allows men to beat women." Other cultural explanations are more indirect, pointing, for example, to the uneven distribution of power within traditional African marriages, the impact of polygamy, the acceptance of male promiscuity, the power of the extended family over the married couple, and the almost universal institution of brideprice as underlying the widespread abuse of wives. The payment of brideprice to the wife's family at the time of their marriage makes it difficult for women to leave abusive husbands, unless their families of origin are willing to return the amount paid.

Alice Armstrong carried out one study of domestic violence in Zimbabwe, which involved interviewing twenty-five male abusers and seventy-five female victims of spousal abuse in the Shona-speaking region. Her findings can be interpreted to support the role of cultural factors as causative of domestic violence among the Shona, but more complex interpretations also emerge from them. Armstrong reports that violence arises most frequently in Zimbabwe out of quarrels over money and jealousy. For example, violent arguments erupt in Shona couples when the wife simply asks her husband for money, thereby challenging the traditionally absolute control by the male head of household over family finances. A similar dynamic is at work in violence initiated by what is termed "jealousy." Although male promiscuity has traditionally been accepted, a woman's sexuality was zealously controlled by her husband and/or family. Two types of domestic violence- producing situations relate to this double standard. The first situation is when a wife is seen as challenging her husband's authority and prerogatives by inquiring about his extramarital involvements. In this scenario, violence erupts when women ask their husbands where they have been and with whom, or express their sense of threat at the addition of multiple wives, which is increasingly seen--realistically in the modern economy--as a threat to the economic survival of the first wife, her children, and also as a potential source of HIV/AIDS. In short, the wife's questioning is itself a challenge to the husband's traditional rights and is seen as a threat to his culturally prescribed position, provoking violence in response.

The second situation involving jealousy as a "cause" of domestic violence centers on the husband's jealousy of his wife's contact with other men. In traditional African society, a married woman would have minimal contact with men other than her husband, but this is much less possible today, especially when the couple lives in an urban area and/or the woman works. Yet tradition-minded husbands feel threatened by interaction between their wives and other men and may act out violently because of that threat, whether imagined or real.

Other commonly reported causes of arguments that escalate to violence are: (1) disputes about the husband's traditional economic obligations to his extended family, now seen as a direct threat to the economic survival of the nuclear household; (2) anger over the wife's perceived failure to adequately fulfill the role of a wife within the traditional division of household labor; and (3) violence occasioned by the wife's "talking back," that is, failure to conform to the expected behavior of a wife to be submissive, not to question or argue with her husband, and to ask his permission for all her activities. In this way, domestic violence functions as a means of enforcing conformity with the role of a woman within customary society.

The explanations described in this section can be characterized as cultural theories of domestic violence--not because they attribute it to violence endemic in African societies, but because they emphasize the close link between violence and the enforcement of conformity to traditional roles for women and dominance for their husbands. They also see violence as emerging almost inevitably out of a society that treats women as property, socializes women to be passive, reduces their bargaining power through the institution of polygamy, and the like. In this sense, the cultural arguments may merge with those based on gender inequality.

Arguments based on culture are problematic in the African context for a number of reasons. Culture in Africa varies widely among groups and regions, changes over time, and may be hotly contested even within the same group. Multiple interpretations of tradition exist, yet it is invariably those of dominant males within the society that have been taken as authoritative. Armstrong herself suggests that culture is often an excuse for male violence, rather than a cause of it. Finally, what is characterized as cultural in Africa would be interpreted quite differently in the United States. For example, as in Shonaland, arguments about money and jealousy lead to domestic violence in the United States, but here they are analyzed as issues of power and control, or as a result of the individual batterer's psychological condition, rather than as cultural issues. Apparently, the United States is presumed to be without culture in this respect. Perhaps the absence of cultural explanations in the United States should be examined instead.

D. Society in Transition Explanations

Another theory of domestic violence sees it as emerging from the fact that African societies are in transition from traditional cultures to a modern, urbanized society. Beneath the surface, many of the violent quarrels described by Armstrong are occasioned in many instances by social change and men's sense of threat in the face of it. For example, quarrels erupt because of men's inability in the modern economy to support multiple wives or extended families, women's growing independence as they take "second" jobs and interact with other men, and the difficulty for women to perform household work in traditionally expected ways when they also work in the cash economy. All of these are situations that might not have arisen if African society had remained untouched by the modern world, but they seem almost inevitable in the economic distress and social dislocation typical in most of Africa today. Moreover, traditional norms may now fail to control men's behavior in a variety of ways. One author points to a general weakening of social controls attendant upon migration and urbanization, which have "brought many families and individuals in Africa into situations entirely unknown in traditional lifestyles, uprooting them out of the context of corporate morality, customs and traditional solidarity." With increasing urbanization, couples may live far from their families of origin, who traditionally mediated disputes about domestic violence and at least moderated the severity of wife abuse. The influence of the family over its members may be weakening in other ways as well, as some of its members enter the cash economy and are thus not as interdependent economically as they were previously. As a result, family elders may not have the same authority to regulate daily life. Moreover, in the past, although household resources were controlled by the man, they were seen as collective, to be used for the good of the other members of the family. Now, income and resources have become more individualized (wages, for example, rather than herds of cattle); and the man may see them as his alone.

Quarrels over the division of resources among multiple wives can be encompassed by the society-in-transition category as well. In the past, a man was expected to maintain his wives equally, and in the agrarian setting this was often possible. In the modern economy, however, there is often not enough to support just one wife and her children; and polygamy may consist of leaving the first wife in the countryside to fend for herself while going to the city to work in the cash economy, taking a "city wife" as well. Thus when the wife in the village asks for money, her husband reacts with anger because his income is barely enough for his own needs; moreover, he may see it as his own because they have not produced it cooperatively, as would have been the case in the past. In sum, occasions for violent quarrels multiply--because of the stresses produced by transition to a different economy and system of social relations, because of the widespread poverty in that economy, and because of the sense of threat experienced by those whose traditional life, and the well-being that went with that existence, are disappearing.

E. Culture of Violence Explanations

Some observers attribute part of the blame for domestic violence, and violence against women in general, to an alleged "culture of violence" in modern Africa, within which violence is accepted as a way to resolve disputes, and link this to the colonial heritage, when Africans were treated coercively and violently by their colonizers. Lengthy civil wars and the repressive practices of many post-colonial regimes continue this culture of violence. This is particularly apparent in South Africa, where there has been a dramatic post-Apartheid increase in violence specifically directed at women, including both rape and domestic violence.

Again, it is interesting to note the absence of such "culture of violence" explanations of domestic violence in the United States. The only contexts that spring to mind which occasion "cultural" theories in the United States are the "culture of poverty" and, occasionally, the "gun culture." Although domestic violence is widespread in the United States, it is never attributed to any general cultural factors; studies of male batterers instead attempt to explain their violent behavior in terms of individual psychology or family dysfunction, susceptible to therapeutic intervention.

F. Absence of Psychological and Economic Explanations in Africa

Theories of domestic violence that are current in the United States--theories based on the individual psychology or psychopathology of the batterer--do not appear in the African literature at all. Individual psychological explanations of battering are relatively common in the United States literature, especially in the literature produced by those who work with male batterers. This literature may emphasize, for example, that the batterers= need to control their intimate partners is based on personal insecurity and deep psychological dependence upon the partners they abuse. Many African authors also emphasize the batterer's desire to exert power and control over the woman, but this falls under the rubric of a "cultural" rather than psychological explanation, apparently because it is so widespread. Similarly, explanations based on family dysfunction have little currency in Africa. Perhaps this is because physical discipline of a wife is so deeply entrenched in traditional communities that it is not regarded as abnormal or dysfunctional. Yet, as Leti Volpp points out, explanations based on individual psychology suggest that the actor is in fact capable of rational behavior, while cultural explanations suggest a limited capacity for agency, will, or rational thought. In other words, the psychology versus culture dichotomy recapitulates the traditional, and racist, stereotype that associates the West with reason and depicts non-Western people as driven by irrational forces.

I am not aware of any African writer directly blaming the high incidence of domestic violence on the widespread poverty in Africa, except perhaps as causative of the culture of violence just described. Poverty nonetheless appears indirectly in the arguments Alice Armstrong describes about money, obligations to the extended family, and polygamy. Moreover, poverty is clearly an important background condition, given the dire situation of most African economies as a result of the fall in prices of primary products, structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank, and often the funneling of profits into the hands of corrupt government elites. Widespread poverty has an impact not only on family relations and the stresses felt by family members but also on governmental capacity to deal effectively with domestic violence. Even if domestic violence codes and remedies were in effect, many African states simply do not have the administrative and law enforcement capacity to implement them.

Poverty is also clearly relevant to the situation of wives trapped in abusive marriages and unable to support themselves independently. Linda Gordon, writing about when women began to voice claims of the right to be free of domestic violence in the United States is quoted by Schneider in the historical chapter of her book, asking, A[W]hat conditions are necessary for an extremely subordinated group to talk of rights?" Gordon concludes that this is possible only when social and economic conditions make it feasible for married women to be independent of their husbands, and only if they are willing to sever the relationship if necessary. These conditions rarely exist for the majority of women in Africa today, given their dependence upon men and marriage for economic survival.





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