Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It knows no social, economic or national boundaries. This is the reason why worldwide, an estimated one in three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her lifetime. Violence against women, particularly gender-based violence undermines the health, dignity, security as well as autonomy of victims, yet it remains shrouded in a culture of silence. Survivors of violence, sadly, can suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and may contract sexually transmitted infections.
Furthermore, gender based violence leaves survivors with long-term psychological trauma. One question that demands answers is therefore, “Of these women, who is at higher risk of being abused?” All women are at the risk of being abused but some situations make other women more vulnerable than others.
Women in polygamous marriages are at higher risk of experiencing GBV
Women in polygamous marriages are at higher risk of being physically abused by their husbands than those in monogamous marriages, according to a study released in August 2015. The study, titled “Risk Factors of Intimate Partner Physical Violence Among Married Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Evidence from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe”, surveyed more than 14 000 married women in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe, and found higher rates of domestic violence in polygamous marriages, which are still common in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. The study findings show that cultural norms play a strong role in fostering violence against women in polygamous marriages. For instance, wife-beating is still culturally acceptable – even among women in most African communities. Therefore one wife is most likely to stay in an abusive relationship because all the other wives in the polygamous marriage endure the abuse.
Why are women in polygamous marriages?
In some communities, especially in rural Zimbabwe, some people are living in abject poverty. With limited economic opportunities, some girls and women are forced to get into relationships of conveniences to escape poverty and as a result polygamous marriages are arranged. Societal pressures also force women into polygamous marriages.
In some cases, girls who become pregnant by married men decide to become part of a polygamous marriage because they fear being rejected, beaten, or abused by relatives. More so, girls are forced to join a polygamous union if an aunt and/or sister, for example, is unable to conceive or has only conceived girls yet the husband wants a son.
Greediness can be a catalyst as some girls are advised to join the aunts and/or sisters in marriage in order to secure material riches for their families. This kind of arrangement is also in favour of the aunt or sister who will believe that having a relative as one of the wives in a polygamous union will not threaten but secure the family’s wealth. In some instances the younger wife may succumb to abuse from both the husband and the senior wife if the relationship turns sower.
Society also labels women who are not married. Women are often left with no options, but to force themselves into polygamous unions if they reach a certain age before they get married. Sadly, socio-cultural pressures force women to get into and stay in polygamous marriages despite the abuse they may be facing. These women will be desperate to gain the status of being a married woman in order to get respect from society.
A Human Rights Watch report sums it up with a statement that reads,
“Socio-cultural and economic pressures such as extreme poverty, poor access to education, and certain harmful religious beliefs and stigmatisation fuel child marriages and also force women into polygamous unions.”
However, this does not mean that there is no way women can be helped to get out and stay out of abusive relationships.
How to keep women out of polygamous relationships?
Legal and economic empowerment is vital for women if we are to reduce cases of gender based violence, especially in marriages. Empowering women should include getting more women into paid work, which increases their financial independence.
Women and Land in Zimbabwe Legal and Advocacy Programmes Officer, Sharon Chipunza, concurs, “We have to address the equality and empowerment of women as part of efforts to curb all forms of violence against them.
This therefore means that we have to value women’s rights in this country”, she added.
Chipunza explained that to effectively empower women to resist abuse culture, the government should also implement a lot of educational programmes that teach people about equality as it is key to ending violence.
Changing attitudes is also important
Empowerment is equally important, but there are other solutions towards the eradication of gender based violence. Addressing – and changing – the attitudes that accept gender-based are thus crucial ingredients that are of paramount importance to curb violence against women. Changing attitudes takes in building the capacity of local organisations and communities to respond to gender-based violence in the local context.
“Addressing the attitudes that make gender-based violence possible also means empowering women and girls through the provision of quality education, proper health and livelihoods opportunities; it means supporting women to speak up for their rights,” said Girls Legacy Director, Judith Chiyangwa.
Gender activist Emilia Hatendi also believes changing attitudes means engaging men and boys to break the cycle of violence.
“Working with men and boys helps accelerate progress in preventing and ending violence against women and girls,” she said.
“Men and boys can begin to challenge the deeply rooted inequalities and social norms that perpetuate men’s control and power over women and reinforce tolerance for violence against women and girls,” she added.
Prevention should start early in life
Although empowerment and changing attitudes are key solutions, the best way to end violence against women and girls is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This can be achieved through addressing its root as well as structural causes. Prevention should start early in life. This can be done through working with young boys and girls in promoting respectful relationships and gender equality. Working with the youth is a “best bet” for, sustainable solution on preventing and eradicating gender-based violence.
Raising awareness and community mobilisation through mainstream media and social media is another important component of an effective prevention strategy. There is therefore need to avail more resources to educate communities about the negative impact of gender based violence.
Eradicating gender-based violence will take intensive efforts at all levels, from all sectors, and from within communities. The key to this is to build momentum to end gender-based violence and contribute to the worldwide development and empowerment of girls and women.
Main image taken from dotunroy.wordpress.com