Why do women stay in abusive or violent relationships? Each woman who chooses to does so for a variety of reasons. There are those women who stay for financial and economic reasons. Many women in Nigeria stay because of their children. The myth that children are best raised in homes abounds loosely in churches and from the unexamined wisdom of concerned counsellors. The issues are complicated and it may be wrong to conclude that some women who stay put, raising children in violent homes are spineless. In most cases, they are not. They are only victims who need our sympathy, support and help.
Within the Nigerian framework, religious and cultural reasons inadvertently force women to stay captive in violent relationships. For instance, fundamental Christians forbid divorce. With marriage vows said, these women become imprisoned mentally and socially in order to avoid the wrath and stigma of their religious institution. Culturally, women are awarded more respect if they are married than single. Some women are ashamed and scared to revert to their singlehood status, so they stay. Unmarried women can also fall into the hands of the domineering partner by failing to spot the signs of abuse at the outset of the relationship. Generally, abused women find that they are embarrassed and ashamed to talk about their situation. They live in the fairy tale world that things will change for them. The truth is, a man who hits a woman will hit again and again.
Lest we think domestic violence is the preserve of the poor and uneducated. The Haven of Wolverhampton, a charity which focuses on the welfare of abused women in Nigeria, writes on their website that Nigeria has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Africa. They reckon that more than two thirds of Nigerian women are believed to experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of their husbands. Many Nigerian women have in fact been killed by their husbands. They conducted a small-scale study in Lagos and Oyo states, which revealed that nearly 65 per cent of educated women said a partner, boyfriend or husband had beaten them up while 56 per cent of lower income market women have experienced similar violence.
In the United Kingdom, UK, the statistics make for an uncomfortable digest. Online surveys reveal that one in four women (one man in six) in the UK will suffer from domestic violence at some point in their lives. Also in the UK, a current or former male partner kills two women every week. For those still in doubt as to what constitutes domestic violence, the Wiki describes domestic violence as a pattern of behaviour which involves the abuse by one partner against another in an intimate relationship such as marriage, cohabitation, dating or within the family. Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical aggression or assault (hitting, kicking, biting, shoving, restraining, slapping, throwing objects, battery) or threats thereof, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, controlling or domineering, intimidation, stalking, passive or covert abuse and economic deprivation.
Laws on domestic violence vary by country. Domestic violence can be aggravated by a lifestyle of alcohol and smoking. Domestic violence is illegal in the West yet many developing countries have different attitudes to it. For instance, in 2010 the United Arab Emirates’ Supreme Court ruled that a man has the right to physically discipline his wife and children as long as he doesn’t leave physical marks. Views on domestic violence also vary. According to a UNICEF survey, the percentage of women aged 15–49 who think that a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances is, for example, 90 per cent in Jordan, 85.6 per cent in Guinea, 85.4 per cent in Zambia, and 85 per cent in Sierra Leone.
The question though is, why do women remain in abusive relationships? Aside from sensational headlines, domestic abuse is more rampant and perhaps under-reported than any other crime in Nigeria. Unsympathetic policing and mixed societal messages, which blame the woman for her misfortune, make it hard for a woman to seek help. Tinuke (not real name) stayed in her abusive marriage for five years till she decided she had had enough. Asking her why she stayed for so long, she said she lacked the strength to walk away. While the marriage lasted, she admitted that she believed the foul names her husband called her. When she was called ‘stupid’ and ‘idiot’, she accepted it.
Anita also spoke candidly about why she remained with her abusive husband for 11 years. She said when she married him, she signed a life contract and life to her meant life. Even though he started to hit her whilst she was pregnant, she felt prayers and counselling would sort things out. Change in his character was always short-lived. It did not seem God was ready to sort her husband out, she left after a night of beating in her 11th year.
The tragedy of women who stay is revealed in the stories of artiste Rihanna and Chris Brown, in the untimely death of Whitney Houston and many others. Unfortunately, mothers, sisters, friends and families all stand by and watch. Often times, there is nothing they can do. They support by giving money, offering prayers and anything else that is required.
Abused women need to see that they are not the ones alone at fault. Love does not have to hurt or be this cruel. An abusive man is very much unlikely to change. Anita endured horrors but she eventually left her home with a suitcase and her life. Others are not so lucky. Abused women are not spineless females, but victims of their love, passion, and (mis)judgements. The courageous few who leave, we applaud. We wait for those who remain in meaningless violent relationships sympathetically. They need to be reminded daily of our commitment to walk the last miles to safety with them.