“I DID NOT get pregnant by choice,” says Annunciata, a mother of eight in Mweso, eastern Congo. Her husband often raped her. “Husbands do that,” she says matter-of-factly. He hit her, too. One night, drunk, he slashed her legs with a knife.
Last September, near Lahore in Pakistan, a woman driving on the motorway late at night ran out of fuel. While she waited for a relative to come and help, two men emerged from the darkness. They dragged her from the vehicle and, with her children watching, raped her.
Maria moved into her uncle’s house in Uganda after her mother died. One night he raped her, covering her mouth to stop her screaming. He said he would kill her if she told anyone. After the fourth time, she ran away. She was 16.
Men attack each other, too. But violence against women, which is almost always perpetrated by men, can be uniquely horrific. Women are often trapped with a violent partner and are usually less able to defend themselves. Violence starts young and is often sexual.
Violence against women is a global scourge, unevenly spread. Those in poor places are most at risk. Women in Africa are more than four times as likely as those in Europe to be killed by their partner or family. Nearly 20,000 African women are believed to be killed this way each year—about two-fifths of the global total, according to the UN. Women in poor countries are also far more likely to be hit or raped by their partner.
Finding reliable data on this subject is extremely hard. In many countries, women are too scared to report assaults, or know that doing so is futile. Surveys are typically more accurate than crime reports. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia about one in five women who have ever been in a relationship say they have been beaten or attacked sexually by their partners in the past year, according to new data from the World Health Organisation. In countries such as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, more than one in three say they have been assaulted by their husbands in the past year.
Even these numbers are probably too rosy. Surveys can miss a lot. A study by Claire Cullen of the World Bank found that asking women in a way that ensured anonymity revealed twice as much abuse in Rwanda as when they were asked directly, as they normally are.
Why are men so violent towards women? For much of history, the answer has been: to dominate women. Violence helps them do this; men are on average much stronger than women. Husbands have long hit their wives, or threatened to do so, to force them to do what they want. Fathers have done the same to daughters. Many societies have assumed this to be the natural order of things: injunctions for wives to obey their husbands are common in old laws, customs and religious texts.
What has changed in modern times is that many have come to see this as profoundly wrong. The notion that women should obey men or put up with violence is derided in rich liberal democracies, but it is easy to forget how recent that change is. A century ago, most societies took it for granted that men would “discipline” their wives. Marital rape was criminalised in Germany only in 1997.
Social progress has moved hand in hand with the material sort. In rich countries, laws against domestic abuse are enforced imperfectly, but they are enforced. Wife-beaters are socially stigmatised. And, just as important, women who leave violent husbands know that neither they nor their children will starve. In poor countries, they may not be so sure. So in rich countries women find it easier to walk away (though often still very hard). And knowing that their wives can leave gives men an incentive to treat them better.
One reason domestic violence is more common in poor countries is that money worries are stressful, and men are more likely to lash out when stressed. But there are more fundamental reasons. There is seldom much of a welfare state to fall back on if women leave their husbands and cannot find work. Family and neighbours may judge them. In Africa the difference between the share of women who have been attacked in their lifetime and those who have been attacked in the past year is relatively small, suggesting many are trapped.
Hard-up societies are also far more tolerant of wife-beating (see chart). In sub-Saharan African countries about 45% of women on average say it is sometimes justified (for such things as neglecting the children). In India about the same share of women concur. That is far higher than in much of Latin America or, where data are available, most of the Middle East. In most poor countries women are more likely to express approval of wife-beating than men are, though some are no doubt afraid to say what they really think.
Several studies suggest that covid-19 has made matters worse. Lockdowns have made it harder for some women to escape abusive husbands even briefly. And the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic has increased domestic stress.
Nonetheless, there is hope. In the long run, as countries get richer, attitudes are likely to change. But many women, understandably, do not want to wait that long. So activists are eager to figure out how to change attitudes more quickly.
Education seems a promising avenue. In the long run, it empowers women and makes them less vulnerable to abuse. But in the short run, it does not always help. In sub-Saharan Africa women who attended primary or secondary school are more likely to be abused by their partners than those with no schooling. Only university-level education correlates with a lower likelihood of abuse. It may be that in countries where universal education is relatively new, a little schooling emboldens wives to challenge their husbands, without giving them the means to walk away. Work follows a similar pattern. Women in Africa who work are more likely to be abused by their partners than those who do not. Again, this may be because as women gain a little more independence, their husbands try extra hard to keep them down.
Religion matters. Women in poor Muslim countries suffer less domestic violence than otherwise-similar ones in poor Christian countries. That may be because few Muslim men booze, and men who drink are more likely to hit their wives.
In South Asia more girls than ever attend school and more women work. But in some ways attitudes have regressed “as women have become less dependent on men”, says Shireen Huq, the founder of Naripokkho, a Bangladeshi women’s-rights group; and the backlash “often manifests in more violence”. The authorities sometimes make things worse. The chief justice of India’s Supreme Court recently suggested that a man accused of raping a 16-year-old girl should marry her. If he did, said the judge, “we can help you.”
Home remains the most dangerous place for women. But they are also attacked outside. Most victims never report such assaults, and if they do, they are often blamed. After the motorway attack in Pakistan, Omar Sheikh, Lahore’s police chief, asked in a televised interview why the woman was on a motorway after dark, why had she not gone a “safer” route and whether she had her husband’s permission to drive alone at night.
Mr Sheikh echoed a common logic for sexual attacks in South Asia: that women should be punished for straying outside their traditional roles. “Women’s mobility has always been an issue,” says Syeda Samara Mortada, a Bangladeshi activist. “That hasn’t changed as women have gone out to work.” Caste dynamics further sharpen male entitlement. Men from upper castes often sexually assault Dalit women, the lowest in India’s caste hierarchy.
Women in countries beset by violence in general, such as El Salvador and Honduras, are more likely to be murdered than women almost anywhere else (Nicaragua has made some progress). In South Africa wives are at less risk from their husbands than in much of the continent, but attacks by strangers are a greater danger than in many other places.
In some countries women are assaulted for political reasons. It is an especially vicious way to intimidate dissidents. Dembe (not her real name) is a Ugandan student. In 2019 she planned a protest against higher university fees. She was detained by police for a day. After her release, she was followed and bundled into a van by thugs, who beat and assaulted her. “I wasn’t treated right in that van,” she says. Later she woke up in hospital. The nurses told her she had been there for a week. Political violence targeting women is increasing in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East, says ACLED, a non-profit organisation.
Stemming the vast and often hidden tide of violence is a colossal task. Some favour harsher punishments. South Asians have roared for governments to hang rapists. Some forms of rape are already punishable by death in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The Nigerian state of Kaduna recently introduced chemical castration and the death penalty for rape. But the death penalty does not work, says Ravina Shamdasani of the UN human-rights office. Even the harshest punishment is not much of a deterrent if perpetrators are rarely caught.
Courage calls to courage
Many women in poor countries are working to reduce violence in smarter ways. They are campaigning for stronger laws against abusing women—and for attackers to face trial. In Pakistan and Bangladesh protesters took to the streets after a spate of gang-rapes last year, calling for the definition of rape to be expanded, for marital rape to be criminalised, and for survivor- and witness-protection programmes. “We want not to be harassed, raped, abused,” says Ms Mortada, who works with Feminists Across Generations, a coalition that organised a big protest in Bangladesh. “We don’t want to be told what to do to avoid it.”
But getting a good law through parliament is just the first step. In Nigeria a 14-year campaign led to a law in 2015 that expanded the definition of rape and offered victims medical care and legal assistance. Nigeria’s federal system requires every state to adopt the law. Yet barely half have done so. And even if laws are adopted, they are often not enforced.
Nigerian campaigners are undeterred. In June, after the death of Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, a 22-year-old student who was found in a pool of blood at her church, a group of NGOs got all 36 governors of states in Nigeria to declare a “state of emergency” (a political rather than legal move) over rapes and violence against women.
Of the 15,000 men held in Ugandan prisons for violence against women, nearly 7,000 are awaiting trial. As campaigns have put the spotlight on abuse, the Ugandan judiciary has been holding special court sessions to clear the backlog of sexual-violence cases. It is not easy. “You cannot take your husband to court,” say relatives of victims, reports Samuel Munobe, the chief magistrate in Luwero. “Why do you want to embarrass the whole clan?”
Covid-19 has made keeping an eye on corruptible courts harder. Before the pandemic Sautiya Wanawake Women’s Movement in Kenya would organise groups of women to watch court proceedings, to put pressure on judges. Now only the victim’s parents, if anyone, are let in.
Campaigners are trying to ensure survivors get immediate help and can report crimes. Rwanda has set up one-stop centres with police, doctors, social workers and legal help. Survivors are helping each other, too. A Congolese organisation, Synergy of Women, helps victims of sexual assault get medical care, counselling and advice on how to press charges. One counsellor, Mammy Kahumbu, was raped by rebels 11 years ago. “The women are encouraged when they see me looking healthy and strong,” she says. “I am no longer a victim, I am an actor for change.”
The biggest challenge is stopping violence in the first place. Those who witness or experience domestic violence as children are far more likely to perpetrate it or suffer it as adults. Dorcas Coker-Appiah of Gender Centre Ghana, an NGO, has trained teams in rural areas to raise awareness, counsel couples, and link victims with support since 2001. She reckons the scheme has covered a tenth of Ghana. A recent study found that it reduced sexual violence in homes by 55%.
Cash transfers can also help by reducing the stress of poverty, which can trigger violence. If it goes to women, that can anger men. Yet if it is combined with training for women, for example in traditionally female areas like children’s health, this can both empower women and soothe male worries about loss of financial control.
Changing minds is crucial, and needs to start early. A study in Bihar, a north-eastern state of India, found that teenage boys who were taught about non-sexist attitudes during sports coaching were less likely to approve of violence against women. And five years later, they were less likely to abuse their wives physically or sexually.
Campaigners’ efforts are bearing fruit. In about three-quarters of poor countries where surveys have been repeated over a number of years, the share of women reporting physical or sexual abuse from their husbands has fallen. That is progress. But hundreds of millions are still attacked every year. Immeasurably more is needed. ■
Read more about women around the world on our International Women’s Day hub.