Human Rights

Domestic Violence Rates Soar in Nigeria, Women Describe Culture of Silence


Article Highlights

ILE IFE, NIGERIA – There is a popular saying in Nigeria -- “When a woman is issuing an order, the world is turning upside down.”

The saying captures what many here call the culture of silence that gives Nigeria one of Africa’s highest rates of domestic violence.

Taye Abiola, 47, is a primary school teacher in the city of Ile Ife. She married life has made her passive and disengaged. “We clam-up and suffer in silence,” she says.

Abiola says she spent years silently taking orders and abuse from her husband. Last year, she finally spoke up and challenged her husband on a household issue. When she and her husband quarreled, she reported the fight to the elders – a common custom here. When they were called in front of the elders to settle the dispute, Abiola says her husband was asked to give his account and she was told to keep quiet. “He kept [screaming] at me and saying it wasn’t his fault. I felt so bad that I nearly cried myself to death,” she says. The elders determined that she was at fault for challenging her husband on what should have been a routine household matter.

Abiola says she has developed high blood pressure and other stress related conditions as a result of the anxiety that stems from constantly serving her husband and never having a say in her daily life. She says she is expected to be silent, above all other things.

But in many respects, Abiola is lucky. She says her husband is domineering, but he is not violent. More than two thirds of Nigerian women are believed to experience physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their villages. More than 50 percent say they have experienced domestic violence at the hands of their husbands.

The Press Institute interviewed women at all levels of society – from university professors to market stall keepers and each reported domestic violence and admitted to living in a culture that requires service and silence from its women. A new small-scale study conducted in the Lagos and Oyo states revealed that nearly 65 percent of educated women said they had been beaten by a partner, boyfriend or husband, while 56 percent of lower-income market women experienced similar violence.


In Nigeria, the social context of violence against women is based on the traditional patriarchal structure that defines gender here. When a woman is married, she surrenders to her husband. She is required to provide “sex and obedience” to her husband according to a development report produced by Amnesty International. According to the African Journal of Reproductive Health in 2005, a husband has the liberty to “violate and batter” his wife if he feels she has not adequately fulfilled her obligations.


Amnesty International calls Nigeria’s rate of domestic violence “shocking,” and has called on the local governments to do something to stem the violence.

"On a daily basis, Nigerian women are beaten, raped and even murdered by members of their family for supposed transgressions, which can range from not having meals ready on time to visiting family members without their husband's permission," says Stephane Mikala of Amnesty International. "Tragically, husbands, partners and fathers are responsible for most of the violence against these women.”


Women of All Economic Groups Suffer Violence

Dupe Akinokun, 52, Taiwo Elugbadebo, 49, and Omowumi Dauda, 35, are all secondary school teachers. Each one says she believes women should be allowed to have a say in the decision making on issues that affect their lives and homes. And each one admits she does not have such powers in her own home. ”It is so evident that the positive contributions of women, economically, politically and socially cannot be ignored throughout the entire world,” Akinokun says.

”For the world to progress, and Nigeria as well, women should be given the opportunity to contribute their own quota to the development of their societies,” says Omowumi. All three women say they have experienced some form of domestic violence.

Adeola Ajibade, 44, Tonyin Adekunle, 42, and Yemisee Olanisebee, 39, are all senior staff members at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife who routinely experience some form of domestic violence in their homes. Ajibade says the culture of silence in Nigeria is killing the women here. “Keeping silent can shorten the life-span of a woman,” she says. But speaking out, she says is difficult, even for an educated woman.

For Toyin Akerele, 28, a market woman and a mother of 3, arguing with her husband used to be dangerous.  “How can a woman speak out if everything she needs is provided for by the husband? The day she argues with him, he will withdraw all the supports and the woman will become empty.”

Akerele says economic empowerment is the key to freedom for women. “I used to be a hairdresser,” she says. Her husband set up her shop for her. “One day we had a misunderstanding, he said I disrespected him. So he closed down the shop, sold everything in it and I was left with nothing,” Akerele says.

But Akerele says she decided not to take her husband’s dominance lying down. She raised her own money to start her own market stall.  “Whenever we fight now, I am not afraid to argue with him because I know he can not close down this shop,” she says. “I own it and everything in it. Women must be equipped economically before going into marriage so that they can also be a force to reckon with.”

But the demand of early marriage may be part of the problem, says Fumilayo Omobonike, 20, a student of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife. She says young women are so desperate to please their families and get married that they “pretend during courtship.”

“They will be washing the cloth of the man. They will be doing all the cooking and whenever they are shouted on, they keep quiet so that the man will be of the opinion that they are good girls and therefore suitable for marriage,” Omobonike says. “After marriage, they are already in bondage and suffering in silence.”