Mrs. Josephine Effah-Chukwuma, Executive Director, Project Alert on Violence Against Women, tells NEHRU ODEH that there is no justification for spousal violence
What do you think are the causes of marital violence?
For marital violence, domestic violence, spousal violence or whatever people want to call it, the key thing is that the perpetrator or the victim are in a kind of family relationship. It could be marriage or birth relationship. I think domestic violence is as old as man. But just like every other form of violence against women, increasingly, people are talking about it and speaking out against it. Moreso, we are beginning to see very horrible cases. As recently as three weeks ago, I think it made the rounds–it was even in the news– that a woman used a pestle to hit her husband while arguing over baby food. But the sad thing is that for years, if we must be honest, women have been the ones on the receiving end and nobody took it serious. People think it is a mild matter; families laugh over it, blame the woman and accuse her of not being submissive or loving enough. They accuse the woman of being too intrusive, too impatient. Name it. They use the Bible: ‘a wise woman buildeth her house.’ I tell people that there is nothing in religious books, for instance, that says it should be condoned. But because it was happening and nothing was being done about it, the monster continued to grow and assumed very frightening proportions. And that is why you see a woman carrying a pestle to hit her husband, a husband stabbing the wife 20 times and claiming that he was possessed by a demon.
Are there laws protecting women in our society?
We use several legislation. Nigeria is one country that when you talk about law, we have lots of beautiful laws. Unfortunately, we just have them on paper. Though some of our current laws are not perfect, but if they are used and enforced the way they are, they will still provide a lot of succour. Talking about domestic violence for instance, our criminal code has a section on assault. It talks about different kinds of assault: assault occasioning harm, indecent assault, grievous bodily harm; with various penalties depending on their severity. But the major challenge this war on assault has posed in cases of domestic violence has been because of the extreme criminal nature of it. What do I mean by this? Because it is criminal in nature, if really it has to be followed the way it is stipulated in the law, a lot of men would be behind bars because the law on assault does not exclude assault in the home. It does not say on this law occasioning grievous bodily harm, if that grievous bodily harm is inflicted on the husband, it does not apply. But actually, women shy away from using the law because they don’t want to be seen as bad wives who took their husbands of many years and father of their children to court. They hold back because when their husbands are found guilty, they may be jailed for years—up to seven years, depending on the severity of the case. How many women want to subject the head of their family to that?
Do you think this problem can be solved?
There is no problem that hasn’t got a solution if the parties concerned are committed to finding a solution. But the important thing is there must be the political will to solve the problem by all stakeholders—be it government through legislation, by way of enforcement of existing legislation; and the family. There must be the will—that if there is a problem between our two children, let’s be truthful and solve the problem rather than take sides. There must be commitment on the side of religious organisations as well. If we are committed, we can totally end domestic violence.
Many attribute marital violence to stress, poverty, infidelity etc. What do you think are the causes?
These are all reasons and justifications people give. But really, for me, there is no reason for domestic violence. What people claim, for example, I am stressed; I am jobless; your husband is jobless so you should understand; she insulted my mother; my food was not ready on time; our bed was not well laid; she went out when I told her not to go out, etc. People say these things just to give excuses for heir shortcomings. Yes, these things happen. But nothing stops them from sitting down and discussing whatever problem may exist with their partners? Violence never ever stops the problem. That is one thing we must understand. If violence solves problems, the world would be at peace. Look at the violence that is happening all around the world. Are we at peace? We are not at peace. Violence never brings peace, whether at a micro or macro level. Violence never solves the problem. Dialogue, the communication channel between couples, should be left open. The truth is the major problem is communication break down—husband and wife are not relating enough. Some couples use letter to communicate with each other or they pass messages through their children: ‘Go and tell your father this’ or ‘go and tell your mother that.’ They are not communicating, they are not talking. And once the communication channel is blocked, there is bound to be violent conflict. And that is what we are seeing.
What are the effects of spousal violence on the family and society?
The greatest effect is on the children and we don’t stop to think about it. Some people will say that children from a broken home are the worst children. I say children from violent homes—homes where couples are still trying to forcefully stay together––are worse than children from broken homes because they are traumatised psychologically and physically. Sometimes, in the process of the couples fighting, they throw something that accidentally hits their child. For a boy growing up, he is made to believe beating the woman up is the only way to solve any misunderstanding with a wife.
How are other countries handling this problem?
It is still happening in other countries, even as we are talking. Violence against women generally and domestic violence, in particular, are not just a Nigerian or African problem. It is happening all over the world. Even in Asia, you have what they call dowry killing, for which family members kill their daughter because they feel she has disgraced them. You have various forms of spousal violence going on in various parts of the world. But the difference between developed countries and ours is that they are trying to respond to these issues. They have laws, which they are enforcing. They are setting up structures and institutions; they are making money available to deal with these issues, but we are not doing that here. We are just barely coming out of the denial phase. We were in the denial for a very long time. We are just trying to deal with that now. Even the government should budget for such things. That is why a lot of women are dying in silence. If I speak out and go to the police, they will not do anything, instead, they would send me back because justice in Nigeria is for the highest bidder—very expensive. A victim has experienced a crime, she goes to the law enforcement agents for help, she experiences secondary victimisation again and then, people are compounding the problem. It shouldn’t be. Once you report, the police should calm you down, take your case and attend to you. But that is not the case.