Although some states in Nigeria have enacted relevant laws, not much has been done in terms of public enlightenment, enforcement and attitude change. Domestic violence is still treated as a ‘domestic affair’.
Domestic violence has been described as abuse of power, trust, or dependency. It presents in many forms including emotional and psychological abuse, neglect, financial and sexual exploitation, destruction of property, injury to pets, physical assault, sexual assault and homicide (National Clearing House on Family Violence, NCFV).
Often, the perpetrator uses a pattern of behaviour to control the victim. Anyone could be a victim of this type of abusive behaviour. However, women and children suffer the gravest consequences of domestic violence. Domestic violence may be found in marriage and dating relationships - often accompanied with denial on both sides
Abusive acts in relationships may include: restriction on association and communication, rape and other sexual violations, verbal ‘put downs’ which rob the victim of a sense of self worth, forcing the victim into financial dependence by withholding or keeping their earnings or not allowing the victim to earn an income. It could also include threats to inflict bodily harm or suicide by the perpetrator as well as physical battery. These relationships tend to go through cycles including a period of tension, explosion and a calming down. The longer this cycle continues the shorter the time it takes to complete one. Ultimately, the home becomes hellish and the victim potentially a ‘sitting duck’ for unlawful homicide.
Women and children are vulnerable to domestic violence to the extent that society expects the woman, for instance, to stay married – for those in marriage relationships – and endure hardship – for those in dating relationships. Indeed, many victims of domestic violence have gone from bad to worse because when they break the cycle of silence and inform a confidant, they are promptly advised to hang in there.
Female victims of domestic violence often have to deal with such health challenges as arthritis, heart disease and hypertension. They may also suffer isolation from their peers, families, support structures and the society as a whole. Soon enough, the victim becomes too ashamed of the abuse to share it with anyone. Women may become withdrawn, depressed, numb and unable to nurture their children in abusive homes. They are less available to their children and unable to provide their basic needs.
Child victims become unduly anxious, perpetually scared and detached from the rest of their peers. Potentially, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, poor academic performance and inability to maintain relationships result. Children react in different ways to violence in the home. Some grow up to become abusive adults. Others become irritable, truants, rebellious, anti-social and restless. Younger children may blame themselves for the acts of violence which they witness and this may precipitate feelings of anxiety and poor self esteem. Bleak as this narrative may look, it is possible to change it. Some people suggest that legislation is the way out but experience within Nigeria does not necessarily support this.
Although a few states in Nigeria have enacted laws against domestic violence, not much has been done in terms of public enlightenment, enforcement and attitude change. Domestic violence is still treated as a ‘domestic affair’ by law enforcement agencies. Religious institutions also unwittingly contribute to the escalation of domestic violence by preachments which tend to suggest that submission to the ‘head of the home’ extends to dying in installments. Nigeria’s partrilineal and male-dominated system also fuels the crises of domestic violence. In some communities, men never go wrong so even where it is possible for the traditional or community institutions to halt domestic violence, they often advise the woman to be more respectful of her husband without addressing the root cause of the violence.
Reducing domestic violence will save lives. There have been several unnecessary losses of lives on account of domestic violence. In each case, a more caring society may have made a difference.
Making a difference will require a new approach and greater attention to details. For this purpose, the following might be helpful:
1.Government and non-governmental organizations must engage citizens at all levels to understand the dangers of domestic violence and steps they could take to address this. In addition, strong support structures, including medical, traditional, religious and educational should be encouraged and sustained.
2.Domestic violence should be treated as the crime that it is. When people suffer incredible physical and psychological damage, their abusers ought to be criminally liable. We cannot win the battle against domestic violence unless there is accountability for these crimes. Law enforcement should be more sensitive to the needs of female victims of domestic violence by making available trained officers to receive complaints, investigate and prosecute, where necessary.
3.Victims of domestic violence must be encouraged to break the culture of silence. Effective public enlightenment and empathy will go a long way. In addition, they should seek help from qualified and trained personnel. No one should be made to ‘go back’ and ‘submit’ to violence indefinitely.
4.Children in abusive relationships often end up abusing others or perpetually submitting to abuse. Therefore they require medical care – physical, psychological and often psychiatric. We cannot afford to focus on the women to the detriment of children. Both are extremely important and ought to be treated as such.
Everyone can play a role in reducing domestic violence. When you notice or receive a report about which you cannot, ostensibly, do anything, you should report to some person or institution that can do something. It is not enough to claim ignorance and powerlessness. There are several institutions – governmental and non-government that can receive these reports, including, for instance, National Human Rights Commission and International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA). Interestingly, both institutions have fairly extensive network of offices and branches around the country.
A whole generation of women and children can be rescued from unnecessary abuse and deaths if we act now. Let’s begin a campaign to end violence in the context of relationships but also beyond. The time is ripe.
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* Okeoma Ibe is legal adviser, Centre for the Promotion of Entrepreneurship and Development (CED), Abuja, Nigeria.