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Abuse: How African Women Suffer in Silence

Almost one in every two African women has experienced violence at some point during her life. But perpetrators silence their victims by saying the woman is to blame, or that she provoked the abuse. How can this change?
Gender-based violence often happens where women should feel the safest — at home

Gender-based violence often happens where women should feel the safest — at home

Catherine had shaved her hair — without her boyfriend's permission. He beat her for that, over and over again.

"I can't remember how many times he hit me over little misunderstandings," the Malawian told DW. What followed is typical in a toxic relationship:

"The next day he came to apologize," Catherine said. She accepted his apologies for a long time, until she finally decided to leave him.

Almost one in every two African women experiences violence

For years, Catherine, like many victims, endured her suffering in silence. Gender-based violence (GBV) happens in secret, behind closed doors, often in women's own homes.

According to a 2020 study, about 44% of African women experience gender-based violence. The global average is about 30%, according to UN figures.

GBV includes many types of abuse — from physical, sexual and emotional violence to female genital mutilation and human trafficking.

It also includes threats of violence, coercion and manipulation. Victims can suffer severe psychological and physical trauma.

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A major problem in the fight against gender-based violence is that victims feel that they cannot talk about it.

"Silence is a big problem in most African societies," according to Judicaelle Irakoze from women's rights organization Choose Yourself.

"Women are told to be silent: Speak less, act less, do less. The less you do, the better you are as a woman." Irakoze told DW interview.

Loud women, on the other hand, are punished, discredited, stigmatized and intimidated.

Shame also plays a big role, said Irakoze, who grew up in the East African nation of Burundi.

In many societies, sexuality and relationships are considered a private matter.

"Women who dare to talk about it are punished for blaming their husband, family or abuser. They are being asked: What did you do to make them abuse you?" Irakoze said.

The danger of 'victim blaming'

And when victims speak out, they are often blamed for the violence. This is the case in Uganda, the home country of feminist activist Safina Virani. Here, she said, not even the police are on the side of the victims.

"Victim blaming" is the name of this phenomenon.

"Even the government is involved in creating institutions that blame victims. In 2014, there was a ban on miniskirts, women should not be allowed to wear revealing clothes. The reasoning behind this decision was that  because women wear such clothing, men want to rape them," she told DW.

In many African countries, women fight back against gender-based violence

In many African countries, women fight back against gender-based violence

"Society has made it so that it asks the woman: What did you do wrong? Maybe she has upset the man," Virani criticizes.

Recently in Uganda, for example, a woman accused a man of abuse on social media, she said.

But his "defenders" shared pictures showing the two as a happy couple. "They portrayed the woman as a liar and asked how she could accuse this man of abuse," the activist pointed out.

'Womanhood is all about the man'

Change is happening slowly due to gender roles, said activist Irakoze. "Everything has to revolve around the male gender, even being a woman. And that includes the reality that a woman's body is never hers, but a playground for the man."

Virani, a Ugandan, agreed. "Society teaches you that you should make your husband happy. As a woman, you can have achieved everything, but if you don't have a man, you are a failure."

For many women, she said, it's hard to escape this brainwashing.

 "Women will tell you that it's your own fault. The reason is societal conditioning and upbringing: women then really believe that the reason for violence against them is how they behave, dress or speak. When they're older, it's hard to get that mindset out of them," Airani added.

All across the continent African feminists want to end violence against women

All across the continent African feminists want to end violence against women

'Men must end this scourge'

Solutions to this culture of silence are needed in politics and society. Experts call for better enforcement of laws against gender-based violence, more women in political positions and better medical services. But changing "the hearts and minds of men and boys" is the first step, according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

"Men created this scourge. Men must end it."

Burundian-born activist Irakoze said the fight must start in families. "If we want to fight toxic masculinity, we have to start with fathers, brothers, uncles and partners. It's the revolution, the liberation from patriarchy in our homes."

Safina Virani hopes that more and more women will have the courage to speak out against their abusers. She is encouraged by young feminists, new organizations and platforms such as the Rwandan platform AfricanFeminism and the public #Metoo debate.

Her tip to victims: "Collect evidence! Even if you're not sure you want to report the person, but maybe one day you'll have the courage to press charges."

In Malawi, Catherine got out of her toxic relationship. It wasn't easy, but it was the right thing to do. "My advice to other women who have been affected by abuse is to leave him before it's too late," Catherine said.

"Abusive men are very cunning, they abuse you today and bring you gifts the next day. Those gifts are not worth dying for!"

Mirriam Kaliza (Malawi) contributed to this report.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Courtesy: DW

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