AFRICAN men are often stereotyped as chauvinists’ intent on treating women badly—they marry a bunch of women and give attention to none, they sell off daughters into marriage while the girls are still playing with skipping ropes, and they beat their wives.
But a new report by Unicef spectacularly casts doubt on this image, revealing that today, more teenage girls than boys believe wife-beating is justified under certain circumstances.
Among 28 African countries surveyed a full 19 had more girls aged 15-19 who said that wives can be beaten by their husbands in certain circumstances: if she goes out without telling him, if she neglects the children, if she refuses to have sex with him, or if she burns the food.
In some cases, such as Senegal, Guinea, Rwanda and Burundi, the difference was more than 20 percentage points, suggesting that girls are much more thoroughly socialised to accept gender norms that assign a lower status to women than boys are.
Interestingly, despite concerted efforts over the past two or three decades to promote the welfare of the girl child, promote gender equity and improve the standing of women in society, there was barely a difference in opinion among girls aged 15-19 and those aged 40-45 when asked if husbands were justified to beat their wives in certain situations.
The percentage of females who hold this view remains virtually the same across all regions regardless of whether those surveyed are older or younger.
In other words, a typical 15-year-old African girl today has the same mentality about wife-beating as a 45-year-old—starkly illustrating just how effective women can be as keepers and defenders of the norms of patriarchal society.
It is evident mothers are raising their daughters and sons very differently, bringing up girls to be subservient to men, but allowing their boys to have more freedom in their approach to gender norms and family life.
It seems paradoxical, but in a way, the mothers are “hedging their bets”, teaching their sons that beating your wife is wrong, but “protecting” daughters by preparing them psychologically in case they end up with a man for whom the lesson didn’t quite sink in.
Richer, more educated women were less likely to condone wife-beating than their poor, less educated counterparts, the data showed, but even education does not seem to completely dampen the female defenders of patriarchy.
Among young women with secondary and higher education in Africa as a whole, more than 30% of them said wife-beating can be justified. In West and Central Africa, the proportion was more than four in ten—which is more than the number of young men in the same region with no education who said as much. In other words, the highest educated women hold the same attitudes to wife-beating than men with no education.
What are the most common reasons that adolescents say justify wife-beating? In Africa, neglecting the children was the most commonly cited reason. But regional differences give us some insights on the nature of those societies.
North Africa was the region led in the number of respondents saying that a wife deserves to be beaten for refusing to have sex with her husband, and if she goes out without telling him—the conservative societies in this region forbid sex before marriage by restricting a woman’s movement, thus sex has a very high premium, and a high level of frustration, if withheld.
West and Central Africa led in the number of respondents justifying wife-beating if she argued with her husband, suggesting that the appearance of social harmony or keeping “family values” is very important in this region.
Eastern and southern Africa, on the other hand, led in the number of respondents who said that burning the food was reason enough to get beaten.
It may seem petty, but the reality on the ground is that much of this region is arid and semi-arid, such as in the Horn of Africa and the Kalahari/ Karoo regions, meaning a good harvest is always a chancy affair. After North Africa, it is also a water-scarce place, holding less than 5% of the continent’s fresh water reserves. So food-burning is actually serious business.