It is a pandemic of devastating proportions. It brings pain and suffering to women and their families. It ravages communities in every country and culture. And yet, we rarely talk about it, and we surely do not address it with the urgency it demands – in stark contrast to the other pandemic, which has been a constant presence in our collective consciousness for the last two years. Tanzania is a case in point. In the land of picturesque landscapes, tropical islands, and spectacular wildlife, this hidden pandemic casts a particularly dark shadow.
The World Health Organization says that 38 percent of women in Tanzania have experienced violence from an intimate partner in their lives, and one in four in the last twelve months, which is twice the global average and above the regional average for Africa. The data comes from the largest ever study of the prevalence of violence against women and was collected from 2000 to 2018. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has made an already dire situation even worse. Because of that, and given the social stigma surrounding the issue, the true numbers today are anybody’s guess, but they are almost certainly significantly higher.
Intimate partner violence is a public health crisis. Out of the 87,000 women and girls who were killed globally in 2017, more than a third died at the hands of their current or former boyfriend or husband. Relative to population size, Africa had the highest level of intimate partner homicide. In Africa, on average, a woman or girl was killed by an intimate partner every 48 minutes. Women who survive intimate partner violence often suffer health consequences that can persist throughout a lifetime, including serious injuries, depression, and anxiety disorders. It is hence no hyperbole to say that there is a war on women.
Part of the problem is language. For too long, intimate partner violence has been considered a “family issue.” We need to call it what it is. When a “man” (in quotation marks because this subcategory of male Homo sapiens does not deserve this label) physically or sexually abuses his partner, it is not a “family issue.” It is not a “domestic dispute” either, to mention another term the retirement of which is long overdue. It is a crime, ugly and simple.
The language we use to talk about intimate partner violence reflects a larger reality. We live in a world in which men still make the rules, and toxic masculinity and patriarchal attitudes are deeply entrenched in society. In Tanzania, as in many places around the globe, a male-dominated police force fails to enforce laws against violence if the violence occurs in a domestic context, the law explicitly permits husbands to rape their wives, and people, including women, routinely make excuses for abusive men: “He was angry,” “He was drunk; he didn’t mean it,” “He’s stressed; she shouldn’t have provoked him,” “He can’t help himself,” “What did she expect when she disrespected him like that?”
This cultural setup enables abuse and makes it hard for women to leave their abusers. The problem is compounded by a psychological response to abuse known as trauma bonding. A trauma bond is an unhealthy emotional bond of a victim with an abuser that arises from a pattern of violence. Often, that pattern is cyclical. There are times when things are relatively calm. Then tensions start to build up. The abuser may pick fights, act overly jealous and possessive, or threaten the victim. In turn, she may feel anxious and try to appease him. The abuse intensifies. It can be physical, but also emotional or verbal. In this phase, she is terrified and may try to leave or seek help. Seeing the harm he causes, the abuser may feel remorse, apologize profusely, beg her for forgiveness, and promise to change. This is the honeymoon phase, during which he may be extra affectionate and romantic. This gives her hope, and his tears of remorse may move her to sympathy for him. She wants to believe that he can change, and that they will one day have the loving relationship she envisages, especially if he is her main source of support. Usually, and tragically, what actually happens is that the cycle repeats, often becoming more intense and more violent over time.
The main sign that you are in a trauma bond is that you try to justify the abuse and shield the abuser from consequences. You may distance yourself from family and friends who raise alarm about your relationship, or even become hostile towards them if they try to intervene and help you get away from your abuser. You may think that he is the love of your life and behaves the way he does only because he loves you so much and cannot control his emotions. You may think that you are the cause for his behavior, and that if you change he too will change eventually. The truth is, chances are high the violence will continue, and likely escalate. When he shows you who he is, believe him the first time! A person who abuses you does not love you. In true love, there is no place for violence.
Escaping a trauma bond is not as easy as walking out the door and can take a long time, but it is possible. Rather than focusing on good times in the past or hopes for the future, acknowledge the violence that is happening right now. Take care of yourself, remind and reassure yourself of your worth, and find sources of comfort other than your abuser, such as physical exercise, keeping a diary, or friends you trust and can talk to. Learn as much as you can about abusive relationships, and how one can tell them apart from healthy relationships (the internet contains a wealth of good and helpful information and advice for affected women). Develop strategies to improve your safety and – finally – make a plan to leave. All of this can be overwhelming, which is why it is important to know that support is available, and that you are not on your own. There are therapists, support groups, and organizations that can help. As a society, we have an important role to play. Men and women must make a collective effort to create a culture that has no tolerance for violence against women. This effort must encompass the internal, interpersonal, institutional, and ideological levels. On the internal level, we must find the courage to recognize that some of the beliefs and attitudes we hold are toxic and be willing to put in the work to change them, even if it makes us uncomfortable. On the interpersonal level, we must stand up and speak up when we know or suspect that someone is being abused, and we must raise our sons and daughters to do the same. On the institutional level, we must insist that the government and other public institutions make combating gender-based violence a priority, and hold them accountable if they fail. On the ideological level, we must challenge social norms as well as cultural and religious belief systems that are complicit in perpetuating the oppression of women. The task is difficult and complex. But do we have a choice? Men’s violence against women must end.
Versions of this article were published under the following titles:
- “Why Intimate Partner Violence Is Not a Family Issue,” The Chanzo (Tanzania, 18 May 2022)
- “Not a family issue,” Dhaka Tribune (Bangladesh, 26 June 2022)