In the Democratic Republic of Congo, two-thirds of women have been beaten by their partners. In Uganda, it’s just under half; in Nigeria, one-third. Police records in Zimbabwe showed that more than 40,000 cases of domestic violence were reported in just nine months last year. A 2012 report by the World Health Organization found that in Ethiopia, 59 percent of women say they have been subject to sexual violence from their partner.
And the list goes on.
“Domestic violence is the most prevalent form of violence that affects women and girls [in Africa],” says Nicole Behnam, the senior technical director in the violence prevention and response unit at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “We have some figures coming out of South Sudan that show absolutely shocking levels of violence, including the highest as domestic violence.”
There are no official statistics for the number of women killed by their partners across Africa every year, but it is thought to be in the tens of thousands. In South Africa alone, around 1,000 women die at the hands of their partners every year, according to various reports.
A 2013 report by the IRC found that domestic violence was the biggest threat to women in West Africa, and Behnam says that is still the case.
“Violence keeps girl out of school. Violence is the barrier that keeps women from engaging economically, from engaging politically,” she says. “When you see the widespread toxic effects that violence has, you lose an entire demographic because they are not using their potential.”
Most victims never report the abuse they suffer. According to the U.N., less than 40 percent of women around the world who experience violence seek help, and less than 10 percent report it to the police.
“They don’t go for various reasons, but one is when they go and report it, they are then abused at the police stations,” says Mariatu Fonnah, the Gender Justice and Governance manager for Gender Links, a leading gender rights NGO that works across 15 southern African countries. “Police see domestic violence as a domestic issue … they say it is not within their scope.”
Fonnah says the way to tackle domestic violence in countries where cultural and religious practices are heavily biased against women is to focus on education, to provide women with the information and self-confidence they need to stand up to abuse and report it.
“The more literate a woman is, the better she is able to deal with violence,” Fonnah says. “Those who are better educated are more able to negotiate within relationships … Women who are not assertive enough to stand their ground, or negotiate better in relationships don’t have that level of agency to be able to say no to violence.”
Lack of education might explain the tolerance towards domestic violence among many communities in Africa. In Guinea, for instance, more than 90 percent of women say a man is justified in hitting or beating his wife if he perceives she’s done something wrong. In more than a dozen African other countries, 50 percent of women believe the same.
“When you are beating your wife, you think it is OK because of our patriarchal system,” says Lilian Liundi, the executive director of Tanzania Gender Networking Program (TGNP), a leading women’s rights charity in Tanzania. “There are traditions and practices that look at women as second class … We have to continue to raise awareness.”
Tanzania, like Kenya and Rwanda, has gender desks inside some police stations which, in theory, allow women to safely report domestic violence. TGNP has been training police officers, the judiciary and social workers on gender issues.
“The police should know why women are being treated like they are second class, why our traditions are like that,” Liundi says. “We are all born equally.”
But, she adds, many gender desks are unstaffed and unfunded. “How can you expect them to execute their duty when they don’t have adequate resources?”
Getting resources out of governments who largely fail to prioritize gender-based violence is a battle across the continent. For NGOs, too, raising funds for domestic violence is problematic – donors aren’t eager to be associated with such dark subjects.
“Violence is a very thorny issue; we don’t like to think about the things that human beings can do to each other,” says Behnam of the IRC.
But in some countries, campaigners have succeeded in getting governments to act. Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Botswana have all either just passed domestic violence acts in the past two years or have legislation in parliament. In March, a lawyer in Ghana successfully sued the government to force it to implement and fund its 2007 domestic violence act.
In Tanzania, meanwhile, campaigners have successfully challenged the law allowing parents to marry off their daughters as young as 14, but are still pushing to have the law scrapped in its entirety.
Women’s groups say change is happening across the continent. Progress is being made due to awareness-raising campaigns and better education for girls and women, as well as the police, judiciary and social workers. But, as Fonnah from Gender Links says: “It is snail-paced.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the name of the IRC unit at which Nicole Behnam works.