I was enjoying the picturesque scenery of the Pacific Ocean on our road trip to San Francisco. All too soon, our children announced their hunger and we got off on the nearest exit. As they headed into the restaurant, I decided to just stay in the car for some quiet time. I was jolted out of my solitude as screams echoed through the parking lot. I looked around and heard profanities and more screams from a car parked a short distance away. Quickly, things escalated into a physical altercation. I heard the slamming of car doors and a sharp sound as he slapped her face. The man smashed a cell phone to bits on the pavement and tossed the car keys several rows away. His young Hispanic female companion was crying, cursing and screaming “Get out of my car, keep away from my daughter” The man raised his voice and continued to rail against this woman. I was worried about her safety. No one else in the parking lot seemed concerned. I got out of my car and approached the combative couple. Should I ask her if she needed help? Should I just call the police? How would I give them my location as I was just passing through this town? Should I go into the restaurant and try to get help? I did not have to do anything. The noise died down as fast as it had started as the couple got into the car and drove off. Slowly, I walked back to my car quite concerned for that young mother and child. If she could be verbally and physically abused like that in such a public place, one wonders what goes on behind close doors. Was this an isolated incident or a continuing pattern of behavior?
My husband was not impressed at my attempt at heroics. “Other people did not get involved” he scolded. “You don’t want to get shot or stabbed” I hardly listened as my raced with questions. How do people start out in love and end up saying such spiteful words to one another? Why would a man beat down his wife/girlfriend? Why would a woman assault her spouse/boyfriend? How do things degenerate from “I love you” to the B-word, the F-word and the C-word? When things go south, why do people stay in abusive and degrading relationships? Intimate partner violence is all around us as we are witnesses, active participants, victims or the audience. I will cite a couple of situations recounted to me first hand by the victims.
An elderly Nigerian woman told me her story. As a new bride, not long after the birth of her first baby her husband became physically abusive. After a particularly vicious beating, she ran home to her parents. Despite seeing her battered body, her father sent her back. He advised her to endure the beatings till she had another baby, so that her son would have a sibling from the same father. This obedient woman returned to her brutal husband, suffered greatly at his hands and finally left him days after the birth of her second child.
Next was a poor under-educated young African American woman. Her troubled teenage daughter was under my care. This mother recounted how her boyfriend would hold their infant outside the window of their high-rise building and threaten to drop her if the woman did not do as he commanded. She was terrified that he would kill their child and so she obeyed him slavishly for many years, enduring verbal, sexual and physical abuse. Finally, a middle aged professional European American woman was in a mess. She was at the point where she needed medications to function in her day to day life. She was on her second marriage and her current husband completely intimidated her. He kept her away from her children, her family and friends, spent all her money, verbally abused her, threatened her with physical harm and controlled many aspects of her life. She was bewildered as to how she was so successful in her career, yet in such bondage in her personal life.
The common thread in these stories is that intimate partner abuse does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, religion, educational levels, ethnicity or socio-economic levels. It is a widespread social problem primarily against women. Worldwide about 30% of women are beaten or abused during their lifetime. Men too suffer domestic violence, but women are by wide margins majority of the victims.
These bleak statistics capture some of the reality of domestic violence. 31% of women in the US are physically abused, raped or sexually assaulted by a husband or boyfriend. At least 3 women are murdered daily by an intimate partner in the US. 1247 women were killed by their lovers in 2004. Pregnant women are not excluded. Homicide is the leading cause of death overall for pregnant American women. The notorious case of Laci Peterson is still fresh in many minds. Her husband currently sits on death row for for murdering his heavily pregnant wife. Previously, in many parts of Nigeria, pregnant women were treated with the utmost care and respect for their role in bringing forth life. Presently Nigerian pregnant women have lost their halo and are no longer off limits. They too are subject to severe beatings should the husband/lover deem it necessary. Staff of many Nigerian healthcare facilities attests to the increasing number of pregnant women assaulted by their husbands.
School children do not fare any better. A study showed that in the 1996-1997 school year, 4,000 incidents of rape and sexual assaults occurred in US public schools. The shocking aspect is that the assaults occurred on school property to children between ages 6-18. Studies show that family characteristics of the children who perpetrated these sexual behaviors include lack of supervision and significant levels of sexual abuse in the extended family. Children become what they see.
Physical and sexual violence is common on college campuses, especially when fuelled by alcohol. Date rapes are under reported because of shame. On Nigerian college campuses, girls do not indulge in alcohol as much as their US counterparts for cultural and religious reasons. Yet, Nigerian college females are prone to physical and sexual assaults from their male colleagues due to cult related activities and from their professors due to power and control issues. These crimes are under reported because of stigma.
If you witnessed domestic violence in your own home as a child, so have up to 10 million children annually in the US. Oftentimes children partake of the beatings since about 50% of men who frequently assault their wives also frequently assaulted their children. Many who grew up under this kind of conditions remember trying to save their mother from blows and getting a thorough beating for their efforts.
Intimate partner violence is costly as more than $5.8b is spent annually in the US on treatment and other related costs. Lives snuffed out prematurely, pain and suffering, permanent emotional damage and pregnancies terminated by acts of brutality cannot be quantified in terms of Naira and kobo or even in dollars and cents.
Why do victims stay with abusers? Despite the broken tooth, the busted lips, the bruised kidneys and the deep emotional scars, many women chose to stay in these relationships. This has been likened to a sickness that cannot be cured without some external intervention. Without the intervention of well meaning friends, family members, clergy and professionals, many women just can’t make that break. They explain why it is their fault they got beat up (He’s only showing how much he loves me; I made him angry; He had a difficult day at work; His business is not doing well). These women always hope he will change (He said he’s sorry; He has said he won’t hit me again; Once the baby is born he will never beat me again).
We all can do something to help those who are chained down in abusive relationships. Get involved. Don’t turn a blind eye to this vice. Silence is not an option. If you notice any sign no matter how insignificant, try to get the victim to talk to you. Don’t readily buy into cover-ups such as “I fell down the stairs” or “I walked into the door” After listening, help the victim sort through her options i.e. where she can get more help? Do they both need the elders, the pastor, the imam or a counselor to help them? Is the situation so bad that she needs to physically remove herself from harm’s way? Are children involved? Help her to see the immediate and cumulative effects on the children. If the abuser is a close friend or relative, you may want to expend some of your social capital by confronting him and getting him help. This is a calculated risk as your good intentions may be rebuffed.
As always, Nigerian institutions can play very important roles. Religious bodies should continuously preach zero tolerance of domestic violence from the pulpit. Law enforcement and the courts can help to reduce incidents of intimate partner violence by just doing their job. Due to the patriarchal nature of these institutions the Nigerian woman may not get the support and justice that she needs. Nigerian police stations are not friendly places and women’s issues are not priority. Through training and exposure, police should learn not to minimize the issue of violence against women. The days of “Go back home and settle it” should be over. Battered women should be offered protection and resources to help them break out of the cycle of abuse. Incorrigible wife beaters should bear the full weight of the law. Nigerian courts should do what they were set up to do. Protect the public by handing out sentences and fines that would deter other aspiring sadists. Educational institutions can help by teaching, discussing and researching domestic violence in Nigeria. Families can help by setting good examples for young children and encouraging open communication with adult children. Finally, through increased economic opportunities, local state and federal government can empower women so they do not have too stay in violent relationships because of financial dependency on a persistently abusive man.
Dr Osundeko is a mother, author and clinician. She writes from the USA.