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Traditional Mechanisms To Eliminate Violence Against Women: A Perspective from Nigeria

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Wednesday, March 30th, 2016
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Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. These cultural practices are either beneficial or harmful. It is these harmful cultural practices among others, that are responsible for the physical and psychological underdevelopment of women and the girl-child and that in turn affects their input in the development of their nation. The need to transform cultural beliefs that constitute and perpetuate violence against women can never be over emphasized. Human rights organizations and health professionals worldwide struggle with how to address traditional harmful practices. These practices constitute violence against women and as such must be treated as a national crisis. There can neither be justice, development nor democracy if violence against women is accepted and promoted.

The paper’s key aim is to seek ways of utilizing tradition, religion and culture in achieving women’s equality and empowerment as stated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Hence, the paper reviews the challenges of traditional practices and examines the possibilities available for women’s empowerment by utilising positive religious and cultural practices, and discarding non-beneficial ones.

REVIEW OF TRADITIONAL PRACTICES DETRIMENTAL TO WOMEN

Many of the practices, defended in the name of tradition, that impinge on human rights are gender specific; they preserve patriarchy at the expense of women’s rights. The girl child often faces discrimination from the earliest stages of life, through childhood and into adulthood. Her low status is reflected in the denial of fundamental needs and rights and in many harmful attitudes and practices. Some of these practices include:

Educational Backwardness: Overall girls’ school attendance still lags severely behind that of boys. One of the main reasons why so many girls do not attend school is because of their workload, both within and outside the household. Daughters are often kept at home to help the family because the social and economic values of educating girls are not recognized. Without access to education, girls are denied the knowledge and skills needed to advance their status. By educating girls, societies stand to gain economically. Thus, education provides empowerment.

Girl-Child Marriage: This is still prevalent to date. It takes place mostly in the rural areas where parents don’t have the means to send their children to school, either due to poverty or ignorance.  Emotionally, physically and psychologically, these girls are not fit to be mothers due to their being underage.

Widowhood Rituals: Looking at widowhood practices, it is important to know that in certain traditional cultures and in Nigeria where superstitious beliefs hold sway, husbands are deemed not to die naturally and so the widow is regarded by the society as a witch and the woman suffers pain. The widow is accursed in the society while the widower cannot kill his wife as it is God’s time for her to die. The woman must prove that she is not responsible for her husband’s death. The woman goes through rituals upon the death of her husband, while the man begins to think of a new wife the day his wife dies. There is a whole catalogue of different negative treatments of widows in most societies. It is observed that only women are subjected to widowhood rituals, most of which have created several conflicts and even death.

Spousal Abuse: Spousal abuse is another area of concern in the catalogue of traditional practices harmful to the women folk. In most societies, traditions, cultures, customs and beliefs are most unkind to women. Women face so many unpleasant treatments in their relationships with men. The most common form of domestic violence is wife battering, referred to as ‘wife abuse’ or ‘spousal abuse.’ The act includes slapping, pushing, kicking, throwing, stabbing and so on.

Domestic violence: Women in abusive relationships cannot fully participate in community life. Their ability to share their energy, ideas, skills, talents and opinions with their families, communities, and places of worship and in the political process is lost when their bodies and minds are consumed by domestic violence. For an abused woman, violence results in health problems, sadness, isolation, and loss of income and self-confidence.

Irresponsible Divorce: Rules guiding the institution of marriage whether cultural or religious are not always followed. There is a threat to the marriage institution through constant abuse of the laws legislating divorce in some societies. Women get routinely thrown out of their matrimonial homes and exposed to danger and hardships when they are divorced. They go through terrible times and they have no money to eat and cannot just resume their normal lives without the help of their parents and or society.

Male Child Preference: Another harmful traditional practice is that of preference of a son over a daughter from time immemorial. In most traditions, a woman who is unable to bear a male child has a diminished status. Son’s preference refers to a whole range of values and attitudes which are manifested in concomitant daughter neglect. It may mean that a female child is disadvantaged from birth; it may determine the quality and quantity of parental care and extent of investment in her development; and it may lead to acute discrimination, particularly in settings where resources are scarce.

Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision: Female genital mutilation (FGM) also called Female Circumcision/Cutting (FC) is a custom or tradition synthesized over time from various values, especially religious and cultural values. Immediate complications that could follow female genital cutting include severe hemorrhage, which may result in shock.  The excruciating pain of the procedure further aggravates this since no anesthesia is used in most cases.  Urinary retention could result due to excessive pain.  Infection easily sets in and damages to the urethra, bladder and anus by way of tears and fistulae formation could be very agonizing and associated with psychosocial problems.

Women, important teachers of cultural traditions, are often the procedure’s strongest proponents. Those who perform genital cutting also advocate strongly for its continuation because it provides most of their income.

TRADITIONAL MECHANISMS AS MITIGATING MEASURES

Replacement of Sexual Rituals with non-Sexual Rituals: Change in social values also determines or dictates change in cultural values – culture is thus dynamic. The practices of FGC, son preference, harmful traditional practices and so on require re-evaluation so that the damaging elements in them are eradicated. For example, in Zambia, sexual cleansing for widows is being replaced with non-sexual rituals so that the overall ceremony continues and retains its value, and the same participants remain involved, but sex no longer takes place.

Promotion of Life Planning Skills instead of FGM/C: In places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Tanzania where the practice of FGC forms part of their initiation rites, they are beginning to adopt the other rites of passage while dropping the Female Genital Cutting aspect. In these other rites, girls are secluded; they undergo life planning skills and are prepared for the future through counselling. The life planning skills relate to decision making, adolescent development, gender roles and equality, relationships, and the incidence of teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and planning for the future.

Therefore, such reformations should be emulated in Nigeria too. The positive aspect of such traditional practices should be retained while the harmful aspect should be discouraged. By so doing the positive aspect of the tradition that is empowering is retained while the ones that degrade women are discarded.

Economic Empowerment of Women: Violence against girls as well as women remains a persistent problem that takes many forms, including sexual exploitation and abuse, rape, incest, prostitution and trafficking. Harmful traditional practices discussed in this paper also constitute violence against women. Economic empowerment is the key to women emancipation in this regard and it will go a long way in reducing most of these practices.

Distribution of Domestic Chores Between Girl-Child and Boy-Child: In order to entrench equal rights for girls, measures should be taken to enlighten people to distribute domestic chores between the girl child and male child.  This will reduce the male chauvinism that boys grow up with, and will teach them to respect women.

Religion as a Traditional Mechanism for Elimination of Violence against Women and Girl-Child: There is serious campaign against harmful traditional practices that constitute violence against women and girl child in Nigerian societies. Civil society organisations, Women’s Groups, United Nations and the Nigerian First Ladies are involved.

Proper interpretation of religious laws can be used to empower women especially in the northern part of Nigeria where religion plays a significant role in the life of the people. In both the two major religions viz; Christianity and Islam, women are revered and entitled to basic rights; to be clothed, fed, housed and adorned.

Most of the practices attributed to religion especially Islam like refusing to educate the female child, FGC and early marriage are more of cultural than religious practices. These are practices that predated Islam and are purely enhanced by traditional culture and not religion.

Harmful traditional widowhood practices are not common among the communities of northern Nigeria because they adhere to the teachings of Islam or Christianity. Here again Islamic Law has provided for a strong and acceptable legal system to protect widows. She is not blamed for the death of her husband. Islam sees widowhood as acceptable and a natural transition for all married couples.  Islam forbids the deceased brothers from taking the children from the widow with the intention of inheriting his assets and she cannot also be forced to marry any of the deceased brothers.  She can only be separated from her children in a situation where she is found to be immoral or proven medically insane.

Also the Shari‘ah provides inheritance for the relatives i.e. the parents, children, brothers and sisters and also the wives in the properties of the deceased.  Hence, they cannot take away the deceased’s property in disarray leaving the widow without anything to fend for herself and children.

What we learn from these examples is that, religion, whether Islam or Christianity has nothing to do with anything that will cause harm to humanity in general. On the contrary, religious ideals can be used to empower women and free them from the shackles of these discriminatory violent practices.  Therefore, religion can be used as another mechanism for eliminating violence against women and girl child, while the religious leaders have to do a lot in order to educate the adherents on the evils of such practices and the true position of religion on the matter.

As part of the way forward we need to keep up advocacy efforts for our government to mainstream gender into all development efforts, we need more women in decision-making in the political sphere, and we should continue to promote girl-child education. As programmes are designed, husbands, brothers, traditional rulers and religious/community leaders must be involved. This will go a long way in ensuring access as well as sustainability.

Most of the time, women execute and monitor the compliance of other women to some of these traditional practices, for example FGC and widowhood rituals. This is because many women are unaware of their basic human rights. It is this state of ignorance which ensures their acceptance and consequently, the perpetuation of harmful traditional practices affecting their well-being and that of their children. These practices violate the rights to health, life, dignity and personal integrity. Poverty is also another key factor responsible for the tenacious adherence to these traditional practices. The struggle for gender equality is achievable when we provide ample economic space for mutual participation. I therefore advise that we must pay attention to reviving our industries for women to unleash their economic influence.

Let us all support and encourage the emancipation of the women folk from these harmful practices. Let us educate and empower women by so doing we build an egalitarian society built on justice and peace for all.

Dr Sa’adatu Hassan  Liman is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) of the Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Nigeria. This is an abridged version of Dr Liman’s paper, which she presented at a side event on March 17th, at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York. We will place the full version complete with endnotes in the Resources section (Documents) of abovewhispers.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response

  1. Dear Mrs Bisi Fayemi,
    weldone for the good job and thanks for this interesting article.
    More grease to your elbow.

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