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Domestic violence: Why the victims stay

  • To what can we liken domestic violence? An insidious virus or a fast-acting poison?

    Either way, domestic violence has far-reaching, and often, fatal effects. This is why society always condemns it and also why we ask the obvious question every time, “Why does she stay?” or “Why doesn’t she leave?”

    However, we forget that it is not that simple. Life has never done anyone the favour of being that uncomplicated, but before we get ahead of ourselves, let us start from the beginning.

    The boundaries of domestic violence

    When we see the map of bruises, the loosely hanging flesh that indicates broken bones or the blood ebbing out, we easily call it domestic abuse. Yet, we must also ask about the woman who cowers in fear when her husband or boyfriend speaks or whose self-esteem has been eroded by the flood of manipulation. She may have never felt the stinging pain of a palm hitting her flesh with so much force that it can snap her neck. She may have never had to wear dark glasses to hide the bruises, lie about her scars or visit a hospital and insist that she is only a klutz who needs a few stitches so she can go back home in time to make dinner for her family. 

    Does the absence of physical abuse mean her experience does not fit within the spectrum of domestic violence?

    According to the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, “Domestic violence is any behavior the purpose of which is to gain power and control over a spouse, partner, girl/boyfriend or intimate family member.”

    National Coalition Against Domestic Violence adds that 48% of women and 49% of men have experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behaviour by an intimate partner. So, yes, I concede that even men can be victims of domestic violence. However, when you put together the physical, psychological and emotional forms of domestic violence, women are the most obvious victims.

    Therefore, domestic abuse/violence may use:

    1. Control- subtle ways of trying to maintain dominance over the victim
    2. Physical abuse - any physically aggressive behaviour that may include withholding physical needs or indirectly inflicting physical harm
    3. Sexual abuse - rape, withholding sex or having affairs and then using the information to taunt the victim
    4. Emotional abuse - undermining the victim’s self-confidence, gaslighting etc.
    5. Isolation - depriving the victim of external support systems
    6. Verbal abuse - insults, threats of violence, refusing to talk as a manipulative strategy
    7. Economic abuse - limiting the victim’s access to money or using the family’s money on non-essential things like drugs and alcohol
    8. Male privilege - a culture in which men are deemed superior thus enforcing male dominance and allowing men get away with acts of violence

    Do you see how encompassing domestic violence really is? Also, it is clear that many of these types of domestic abuse can go hand-in-hand.

    In addition, at the heart of domestic violence is a power play. This is illustrated in a diagram termed 'power and control wheel' designed by DOMESTIC ABUSE INTERVENTION PROGRAMS, an American Domestic abuse program.

    Credit: DOMESTIC ABUSE INTERVENTION PROGRAMS 202 East Superior Street Duluth, Minnesota 55802 218-722-2781 www.theduluthmodel.org

    Therefore, as abominable all these acts of violence are, why do certain women stay? Society already concedes that domestic violence is wrong and the victims themselves know that they deserve better, so why don’t they just leave?

    I have often asked these questions, but now I know that domestic abuse is actually more complicated than that. Like I said earlier, life hardly ever gives us the privilege of being simple.

    Related article: You can’t always have it figured out, and that’s fine

    Why stay when leaving is best?

    Those of us on the outside believe that it is pretty evident that walking out of the relationship or marriage is the best option yet, we find these women staying. It is almost as if they are asking for it, or perhaps they enjoy being victims.

    My research and series of interviews revealed some compelling reasons many women would rather stay in abusive relationships and marriages than walk away.

    In 2009, the National Center of Biotechnology Information published a study on why Jordanian women stay in abusive marriages.

    Five (5) reasons were identified:

    1. Inherited social background
    2. Financial dependence
    3. Lack of family support
    4. Children
    5. Adverse social consequences of divorce

    On a close look, one would realize that the Jordanian society is similar to Nigeria’s own, in that they are both conservative with religious and patriarchal leanings.

    Interviews with diverse respondents led me to arrive at five (5) similar reasons why women stay in abusive relationships and marriages in Nigeria.

    1. Financial dependence on the abuser
    2. Shame
    3. Fear of stigma and societal pressure
    4. Children
    5. Love

    Financial dependence

    Hauwa Saleh Abubakar, a law student and activist noted that each of these reasons are interwoven and added, “A lot of women stay in abusive relationships because they don’t have any source of income to fall back on and that is exactly why a lot of abusers like keeping the people they abuse financially dependent by stopping them from working or blocking every source of income, mostly under the guise of love and care, and the desire to ‘keep them from suffering.’”

    Benny Atsua, a musician and stagecoach recounted, “I know a woman that told me her husband wasn’t treating her well, but she boasted about not lacking anything. The man was taking care of her needs. That was enough reason for her to stay.”

    They have no source of income and they have mastered dependence on this person and leaving the person will mean starting afresh,” Okiki Dauda opined.

    Indeed, this perspective has got to be right because we see it play out on a global scale. The one who controls the money has the most power. Take a look at how Africa consistently depends on foreign aids and see what it is doing to us as a people. We are subservient, subject to the whims of ‘the powers that be’.

    This practical example shows how one can be caught in the throes that make it near-impossible to leave even when one wants to do that.

    Shame/Fear of stigma/ Societal pressure

    Well, a culture of shame is not foreign to Nigeria, so I cannot say that I am surprised that it has found its way here.

    Abubakar further explained, “I believe shame, fear of stigma and societal pressure are lumped together. It is the fear of stigma and the societal pressure that brings about shame. People tend to see divorced women as ‘used goods’, and we have cases of people stopping their sons from marrying a divorcee.

    The stigma has made a lot of people stay because they can’t handle the culture of shame that is attached to divorces. In fact, a lot of people in our society get upset to see divorcees being vocal or living their best lives. You are expected to shrink and be ashamed of your situation even if everyone knows you survived an abusive relationship.”

    Oluwayemisi Adewumi added, “Most people are too conscious of people’s opinions of them, and we tend to make life decisions based on what people will say. They say, ‘I can’t put myself or family to shame.’

    Most people have painted a perfect picture of their relationship to everyone and don’t have the nerve to come out of the lie they’ve been living.”

    Meanwhile, civil servant Margret Oladimeji Oluwaseun said, “It is not easy for a woman/lady to leave a relationship/marriage she has given her all to build. I believe every woman who is in a relationship/marriage has in one way or the other boasted about to her friends or family how good, caring and romantic her guy is to her. Hence, leaving such a relationship/marriage might be difficult because she feels people would mock her or laugh at her. She would rather stay and keep telling herself that all will be well.”

    Dauda addressed society’s standards. “Marriage has been made to look like an achievement for women without which their lives would be meaningless. A lot of women are ashamed to admit they are going through abuse.”

    In a world where women are led to believe that marriage is the reward for being good and that if she is the perfect ‘wife material’, she will have a home to be envied, only an insensitive person would condemn a woman who would rather stick it out in a marriage or relationship that is slowly killing her.

    Religious beliefs

    For a very religious society like ours, the average Christian would not want to go against God’s word, and wouldn’t want to be called a divorcee. Also, the church community may excommunicate such a woman or she may not be allowed to handle certain posts.

    Again, some church leaders would tell the woman to endure, and ‘make it work’”, mother of four and educationist, Alice Ejikunle pointed out.

    Hauwa Saleh Abubakar equally said, “The problem with religion is usually its interpretation. I know that even when women in abusive relationships tell religious leaders or elders, they are told to bear because marriage should be ‘for better or worse’, and that’s orientation we get from religious bodies.

    This fear of being seen as unreligious makes a lot of people stay in abusive relationships.”

    On the other hand, journalist Amina Jibril had a divergent opinion because she believes that religion in itself is pure. “I believe no religion encourages violence, so it should not be among the reasons why women stay in abusive relationships/marriages.”

    Inasmuch as religion is meant to be a route to freedom for the soul and spirit, it has become no more than a prison of personal beliefs and dogma in Nigeria.

    Children

    Activist, Abubakar expatiated on how children may make some victims remain in abusive relationships. “A lot of people stay for their kids. In fact, some abusers use kids to trap their victims in relationships. People get scared for their kids’ future, and that’s why they stay, especially when they are not financially independent.

    They believe that children should grow up in a ‘complete’ family no matter how hard it is - that ideology is deeply ingrained in our customs. We think a broken family is when they no longer stay together, not understanding how staying in abusive relationships is damaging the kids.”

    According to a 2015 study by the Institute of Family Studies, one victim of abuse noted that if the abuser was not hitting her, he would hit the children. Therefore, she stayed so that she could protect them while being beaten for 20 years. 

    One may think, “If you are being abused, what makes you think that you can protect someone else?”

    Yet, we see from the respondent of this 2015 study, many of these victims protect their children by being human shields. They do not stop the abuse from happening altogether. Instead, they accept the violence so that it does not happen to their children, and as we know, in most Nigerian homes, when the woman leaves, she rarely ever leaves with her children.

    Love

    You may assume that love has no business being here, but you would be surprised to realize that some of these women genuinely love their abusers, especially in cases where he always becomes a knight in shining armour right after the abuse, until the next time he does it again.

    This happens because domestic abuse is often cyclical. It follows a pattern. It is more of a habit than something that happens in the heat of the moment though it may take a while for the cycle to start again. In some cases, the guy is a perfect gentleman when he is not abusing the woman or he is gaslighting her, to make her believe that the abuse is actually her fault.

    Dr. Temilolu Oladimeji affirmed, “Some people see it as a love language.”

    While Roselyn John Kaga said, “Some of us feel it’s out of luck that we have one person that would give us love or love us for who we are, perhaps because of how we feel about our looks or that we don’t measure up.”

    Abubakar further explains. “Love is complicated and most people in abusive relationships think they are in love when in reality, they are not. Sometimes it’s the fear and the emotional abuse that makes them stay, especially if the abuser shows them kindness after abuse and especially if they have been starved of love their entire lives.

    People who come from abusive homes or have been starved of love tend to gravitate towards someone that shows them a little bit of kindness and get scared that if they leave, they won’t find love again.

    Also, it is a learned behavior. If your parent stayed in an abusive relationship and claimed it’s because of love, you may unwillingly pick it up, because that is all you know.”

    In addition to these reasons, a survivor of domestic abuse and contributor on HuffPost, Ali Owens writes, “We fear retaliation… In many cases, abusers will go so far as to stalk, rape, or even kill the women who tried to leave them. Sometimes it is very literally not safe to leave.”

    Therefore, in cases where these women choose to stay, it is not because they are weak, dumb or enjoying the abuse. Sometimes, these women are strong, independent women, like in the case a fashion designer Olamide Agunloye who used to speak against domestic violence before she got married and endured seven years of abuse.

    Other times, their self-esteem has been severely damaged or they genuinely believe that they can ‘save the abuser’ from the behaviour.

    You may want to check out this article about the uniqueness of a woman

    So, what should we say to them?

    It can be very painful to watch someone you love suffers abuse and refuses to leave. Yet, the decision to leave is not yours to make.

    Do not give in to popular misconceptions about domestic violence. Rather, listen to the victim and make her understand that you are there to support her, that you will provide whatever she may need whenever she decides to leave. Sure, you can talk to her about the danger she is putting herself in by staying, but the decision should be hers - she is the one who would have to live with the aftershock of the decision to leave.

    It is not your right to condemn a woman who does want to leave an abusive relationship or marriage. When you have walked a mile in her shoes, then you can speak and even then, you won’t still be right because no two abuse situations are the same.

    When we have done our duty of creating a society that is a safe space for victims of abuse, then we may have the right to criticize women who choose to stay.

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