I’m sure most of us living in developed countries would agree that wife-beating isn’t exactly an acceptable practice. According to UNICEF, that may not be so true in the developing world — even among women.
Researchers asked women ages 15-49 whether or not men are justified in abusing their spouses for things like refusing to have sex, burning food, arguing, leaving without notice, or not taking care of children properly. Surprisingly (or at least initially for me), many said yes: Jordan topped the list with 90% and countries like Mali, Somalia, Morocco and Vietnam also ranked pretty high with affirmative responses in the 60%-89% range. (Check out the original chart here and The Economist’s version here.)
Where it gets really interesting is the breakdown based on local environment. In country after country, women in rural communities seem to be more accepting of wife-beating than those in urban settings. In some countries, the gap is minimal –31% vs 38% in Bangladesh or 75% vs 77% in Congo — but in others, it’s much more substantial. In Kenya, for example, there’s a 25 point difference (34% vs 59%) between acceptance levels in urban vs rural women. Many other countries show a similar spread.
The breakdown by wealth follows a similar trend. Let’s take Turkey, for example. Well known on the political world stage, a confluence of different cultures and religions, pretty cosmopolitan and therefore not so pro-wife-beating, right? Depends on your income. While only 7% of the richest women agree that wife-beating can be justified, a comparatively whopping 43% of women in the poorest category agree.
Why these disparities? Obviously education comes into play here, and with that comes women’s empowerment — or perhaps the lack of both. While urban women can more likely access education as a means to earn their own living, women in isolated rural areas are less likely to have access to high-quality education. Their ability to be economically independent diminishes. Consequently, they become more dependent on their families, which more likely than not are patriarchal.
If they’re not obeying fathers or older brothers, they’re likely bowing to the wishes of their husbands. Since marriages in many societies are more of an economic agreement or a way of sealing ties between families, it’s not guaranteed that a woman’s eventual husband will be someone who cares for her beyond her ability to fulfill the role of wife and support his dominance as husband. If she acts up, why not yell at her, hit her, or neglect her? After all, there’s not necessarily a strong emotional attachment there. If Mr. Husband dies, there’s usually a son or even son-in-law to step up and keep her in line.
Pretty straightforward. But even these women, do they really approve of wife-beating? Do they even really accept it?
If a woman born into such a society has seen little else but mothers, sisters, cousins, and aunts tolerate this system of abuse for generations, I’m not sure she would necessarily feel able to question it. Especially so if domestic abuse is backed by religious rhetoric and historical justification and she has little or no perspective of other ways of life. It’s likely to seem as plain a fact as childbirth or funerals –just another painful part of life. But do they approve of it? Do they like it? Probably not.
Take Rachna Shahi from rural Nepal. At 15 years old, she joined the Maoist People’s Liberation Army in part to fight for improving women’s rights, but today finds herself a victim of domestic abuse perpetrated by her husband and his family. Naresh Newar for Inter Press Service describes her story:
“Sometimes I am tempted to kill myself, as that would end all my sufferings. But who will take care of my children after I die?” she asks, wiping her tears and sobbing softly.
Her husband, Keshab Majhi, hits her with anything he finds handy such as an iron rod or a hammer and has even threatened to kill her with an axe.
Women like Rachna don’t necessarily report their abuse to the police, either because there is no accessible legal help in their remote rural areas or simply for fear of making the situation worse. Given the prevailing acceptance of wife-beating in their communities, reporting the abuse can lead to victim-blaming from neighbors, police demands for proof, or retaliation from their husband’s family. Their hesitancy doesn’t necessarily translate to approval, though. It seems that we should interpret their seeming acquiescence to wife-beating not as acceptance but as pure inability to single-handedly confront and conquer a long-established social beast.
So what can be done?
Obviously improving women’s access to education and economic opportunities that foster their independence are a must. But what about the men? I’m not sure men in these societies would take kindly to having the UN march in and tell them how to treat women. After all, they’re also entrenched in the belief systems that justify wife-beating — not to mention the fact that subjugating their wives puts them in a position of power.
As Shashi Tharoor says in her article for New Internationalist Magazine, ”At the risk of sounding frivolous: when you stop a man in traditional dress beating his wife, are you upholding her human rights or violating his?”
His forefathers say it’s ok — sometimes thousands of years worth of them. God’s okay with it, or at least the people writing and compiling His words do. How do we go about convincing them otherwise?
What do you think?
Photo Credit: Andrea Guerra via Flickr