On March 1, 2021, a businessman got into an argument with his wife. He assaulted her and she had to be rushed to the hospital for immediate medical attention. She later went into a coma and died. In his bail application, the defence lawyer told the court that there was no assault, instead “a slight touch during a misunderstanding.”
On April 3, a 53-year-old man was remanded for the rape of his biological daughter in Accra. Upon his arrest, the mother of the 13-year-old victim revealed that this was the third time he was committing this crime, with previous victims being his step-daughter and his niece. In the earlier cases, the family had settled it within the family for fear of societal embarrassment.
Recently, a Ghanaian lesbian soldier, in the celebration of her most fundamental human right to love, married her partner. After the news found its way to social media, she was detained and is facing a Court Martial. This happened amidst the violence of sanctioned cultural homophobia: societal abuse, violence perpetrated by their own families, a loss of homes, and the mental trauma that underscored all of this.
Under a patriarchal state, women are an object of hate, and violence is the expression of this hate. The violence is institutionalized in all aspects of society as the weapon of a deliberate system of oppression, a system formed around our homes, educational institutions, in the language of our laws and customs, our popular culture, in our religious institutions, in our workplaces, and our media.
In the state of systemized violence that patriarchy is, society is set up as a predator-prey state, where the violence perpetuated on women is seen as an inevitable consequence of a woman stepping out of line. They have to be whipped back into place or be killed. It is that grim.
Violence against women takes place in many ways. Physical violence is a show of power and the abuse of it, inflicted on the body of a woman to remind them of “their place”. Sexual violence is a direct assault on women’s physical and mental health by taking away their rights to their most private selves. Sexual harassment, for example, is pervasive in our homes, schools, workplaces and social spaces and a constant reminder to women and girls that their bodies are not their own. Endemic rape culture means that sexual violence has a strong structure of support to continue thriving.
Emotional abuse, typically harder to recognize, occurs when the abuser uses the power they have over a person’s emotions to control their behaviour by damaging their sense of self-worth and making them question their reality. Emotional abuse can look like the constant belittling of one’s feelings and experiences; high self-sacrifice, being made to pander to the victimizer’s ego to avoid their emotional withdrawal; denial of reality; a cycle of codependency. Emotional abuse also occurs when women’s mental health issues are manipulated and used against them by people they are emotionally dependent on. This can look like triggering their anxiety, their depression being reinforced by a victimizer, or using their mood disorder to shame them and make them feel inadequate.
Economic violence involves instituting overt and covert systems that make the workplace hostile to women and also to force women to be financially dependent to be able to control them. This is also evident in the working world where women are paid less, and going on maternity leave endangers one’s job security. It is dehumanizing violence and a violation of women’s human rights.
The violation of one woman’s rights and freedoms is a violation of the human rights and freedoms of all women. An endemic rape culture, for instance, is illustrative of this. It normalizes a state of living where women have to live in fear for their lives – fear of how we dress, fear of who we are supposed to trust, fear of crossing yet another imaginary line that will be used as an excuse to justify the violence. The homophobia faced by LBQT women and non-binary people is a violation of the human rights and freedoms of all women. It is a violent patriarchal warning about who women are ‘supposed to’ be, who they are ‘supposed to’ partner with, who they are ‘supposed to’ start families with in order to serve into the larger system of oppression and exploitation of women for power and control.
In the face of the deadliest pandemic to hit humanity with the onslaught of Covid-19, violence against women only worsened. The loss of jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic disproportionately affected women. Women who would otherwise have had other places to escape to were stuck at home with their abusers. UN Women reports that 243 million women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 were subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the last 12 months. The pre-existing toxic social norms and gender inequalities, economic and social stress caused by the pandemic, coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, led to an increase in violence against women. The forced quarantine, loss of jobs and a source of income also meant LBQT+ women had no escape from the violence of a homophobic home.
Bringing an end to VAW as we forge a new post-covid world requires a societal revolution. From our homes to our workplaces to our religious spaces, the violence of patriarchy and its expression needs to be excavated, challenged, and new, kinder, just and equitable systems put in place. Here are some everyday ways:
- Self-introspection and critiquing. The systemic nature of patriarchy means that we are socialized with certain harmful and violent patriarchal notions of gender and gender roles that were normalized in the institutions that contributed to our formation: our homes, our schools and the general environment. This, therefore, requires a process of learning and unlearning. Let’s be self-reflective to check our own patriarchal biases. Start by changing the small habits in our thinking patterns and action. Develop new habits in our unlearning. Committing to doing this every day, because it does not stop. This is a constant practice till habit becomes identity.
- To encourage societal reflection and change, let’s challenge accepted practices and behaviours in our workplaces that implicitly and explicitly condone a culture of violence against women; Check our friends and colleagues.
- In our homes, let’s introduce new conversations. The current state is to teach boys that they are predators and girls are prey. We teach a violent stereotype of masculinity and a limiting form of femininity. Instead, let’s institutionalize an understanding of gender as a spectrum and that it comes in a variety of expressions. This diversity of expressions is the very diversity of nature therefore using violence to suppress a person’s expression of gender and sexuality is what is unnatural.
- Religious fundamentalism and the violence it encourages should not have a place in this post-covid world. Religion is a most powerful tool that influences societal behaviours and norms. In the past few years, we have seen across Africa a rise in Christian fundamentalism that sanctions the subordination of women and the violent homophobia and transphobia of LBQT+ women. Let us challenge our religious leaders and institutions to interpret holy texts differently and in wholesome ways that does not give divine justification to violence against women.
- Be a voice for justice. Speak out, stand with others, push for change.
- Language is a tool of colonization and subjugation, therefore checking the language that is used and normalized is a seemingly small, yet important effort. Language that condones and normalizes violence against women must be checked to end a culture of violence.
- Introduce new, kinder, equitable family, workplace and societal cultures that abhors violence. Share your new perspectives with friends and family, live your new perspective such that you show others a new way to be.
- Create more healing spaces for women. This can be in the little ways: not normalizing violent sentiments by not retweeting them on your Twitter timeline; being the family member your family can come to as a safe haven from violence.
- Learn about African feminism, and follow African feminists and reflect on how you can contribute in small or big ways to the movement to dismantle patriarchy.
What can you add?
To end a culture of violence against women, social norms need to change. Old systems are being forced to dismantle in a post-COVID world but many others could be cemented if we don’t address new inequalities arising. What used to serve society no longer does. In fact, it showed us how shaky those foundations were. To build new systems, let us build new social norms. To do this, requires a collective effort.
Learn, Unlearn, Reflect, Challenge, Speak up, Seek Justice, Teach new cultures. Be the difference.
Akosua Hanson is a feminist activist based in Ghana. This blog was written as part of the GBV Prevention Network’s Campaign on ‘Preventing Violence against Women: A Feminist Agenda’