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How African women suffer silently through abuse

August 26, 2022

Almost one in 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?

A woman sitting in the darkness of her house
Gender-based violence often happens where women should feel the safest — at homeImage: Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images

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," Catherine, who is from Malawi, 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 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, financial abuse, coercion and manipulation. Victims can suffer severe psychological and physical trauma.

Map showing the percentage of ever-married woman who have experienced physical or sexual violence committed by their husband or partner

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," Judicaelle Irakoze, of the women's rights organization Choose Yourself, told DW.

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

Women who speak out, 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.

Discrediting victims

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.

Activists, wearing masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus, picket outside the police headquarters in Cape Town, South Africa
In many African countries, women fight back against gender-based violenceImage: Nardus Engelbrecht/AP/picture alliance

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

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," Virani said.

'Conditioning and upbringing'

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

Virani had a similar take. "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."

It is hard for many women to escape this brainwashing, Virani said.

"Women will tell you that it's your own fault," she said. "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."

Two feminist activists from Ivory Coast hold two placards reading "my outfit is not an invitation" and "no to rape culture" during a demonstration
All across Africa, feminists want to end violence against womenImage: SIA KAMBOU/AFP

Making men responsible

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," he said. "Men must end it."

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."

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 pan-African 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," she said. "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

Fighting back against abusive relationships

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German-born journalist.
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