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Domestic Violence in the African Context

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Cynthia Grant Bowman

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


By the mid-1990s, attention had begun to be paid in most African countries to the widespread problem of domestic violence. Studies about partner abuse and femicide--both informal, anecdotal studies and more formal surveys--appeared in Ghana, Tanzania, and South Africa, for example. Much of the initial writing was intended simply to document the existence of such violence and thus to construct it as a social problem. At the same time, activist groups in a number of countries such as Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya began lobbying for the passage of domestic violence codes, although only South Africa and Mauritius have passed such statutes to date. Women's rights activists in several countries, notably Zimbabwe and South Africa, established organizations that counsel abused women, offer legal assistance, and in some instances provide domestic violence training to government personnel. In Ghana and South Africa, specialized units within the police force were set up to address domestic violence problems affecting women and children. Shelters for abused women have now been set up by non-governmental organizations ("NGOs") in those two countries, as well as in Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, and other places.

Although analysis of the problem of domestic violence is much more recent in Africa than in the United States, and most of the writing about it has been undertaken by activists rather than academics, several theories of domestic violence are reflected in this work. As Elizabeth Schneider points out, the theoretical grounding of domestic violence work has important implications for the remedial strategies chosen to address the problem, and especially whether it is seen as an aspect of a larger struggle for gender equality. Schneider describes a number of different types of explanations for domestic violence and contrasts them with the feminist one: explanations rooted in individual psychology; ones centering on sociological forces, such as family dysfunction; and others focusing upon male aggression, poverty, and the culture of violence. The various theories yield quite different prescriptions for social action to confront the problem, such as individual psychotherapy or family therapy, more stringent crime control measures, legal reforms, or far- reaching social and economic transformation.

In this commentary I describe theories about domestic violence that are explicit and/or implicit in the literature produced in the Anglophone African context, a literature produced primarily by local activists and by international NGOs, and examine the implications of those theories for the work to be done. Part One describes a variety of theories about domestic violence to be found in African writings, some of which are implicit in explanations or descriptions of causation. In examining the implicit theories offered in African writing about domestic violence, I note that many feature a feminist explanation but often combine it with suggestions for liberal democratic legal reforms, undergirded by a theory of human rights. Other explanatory theories are particular to the African context, such as so-called "cultural" explanations, or explanations rooted in the transition to a more urbanized and individualistic society, and explanations based upon a so-called culture of violence produced by the colonial experience. Part Two speculates about the implications of each theory for determining where domestic violence activists should focus their energies in order to decrease the phenomenally high level of violence that has now been revealed.


Theories that Appear in the African Literature  of Domestic Violence
Theories Dictate Remedies


Related Pages:
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Professor Vernellia R. Randall
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The University of Dayton School of Law
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