June 19, 2012 – Domestic violence, also known as domestic abuse, spousal abuse, battering, family violence, and intimate partner violence, is a pattern of abusive behaviours by one partner against another in an intimate relationship such as marriage, dating, family, or cohabitation. Domestic violence and abuse is not limited to obvious physical violence.
It can also mean endangerment, criminal coercion, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment, trespassing, harassment, and stalking to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.
Domestic violence is a global phenomenon and not limited to Nigeria. It occurs in various cultures, and affects people irrespective of their economic status. According to a recent study, the percentage of women who have reported being physically abused by an intimate partner vary from 69% to 10% depending on the country. In Nigeria, spousal abuse has become a scourge and there is a report that 50% of our women have been battered by their husbands at one time or the other and unbelievably, more educated women (65%) are in this terrible situation as compared with their low income counterparts (55%).
The problem of domestic violence is rooted in the socio-cultural complexes of various societies of the world, for this reason, a legalistic approach is now being adopted by many nations in the fight against this plague. For instance, in the United States of America, not until 1985 that a court decision concerning Tracey Thurman, a Connecticut woman who sued the City Police Department in Torrington, Connecticut, claiming a failure of equal protection under the law against her abusive husband Charles “Buck” Thurman. After Tracey Thurman was attacked, stabbed, and nearly killed by her husband in 1983, a subsequent civil lawsuit judged that the local police had ignored growing signs of domestic violence and had casually dismissed restraining orders and other legal bars to keep Buck Thurman away from his wife. The Thurman lawsuit brought about sweeping national reform of domestic violence laws in the USA, including the “Thurman Law” passed in Connecticut, making domestic violence automatically arrestable offence, even if the victim does not wish to press charges.
Unfortunately the reverse is the case in our country where we are yet to have definite national laws that protect the citizens against domestic violence. Over the years, there have been agitations on how to stop domestic violence against children and women which have sadly yielded no result. Recently, however, the Lagos State House of Assembly made a bold move and passed into law, a bill “to provide protection against Domestic Violence and for Connected Purposes.” The law which came into force in 2007 is specifically designed to protect the Victims of domestic violence.
However, only four states in the Federation (Lagos inclusive) have passed laws against this menace, whilst none of the several bills against it in the National Assembly is yet to see the light of the day. Of the states that have passed it, the law is yet to be fully tested.
Five good years after the Domestic Violence Law has been passed, very little or nothing is known about it. Even the custodians of the law, the judicial officials, law enforcement agents, legal practitioners and other social workers, victims and culprits are ignorant of the law. Every day in many homes, domestic violence is being committed with impunity without the culprits knowing that crime was being committed and the victim not knowing that his or her rights were being trampled upon. The extent to which domestic violence is being perpetrated is not really known. It is an offence that men and women engage in daily without anybody knowing that a crime was being committed.
Many victims of domestic violence usually lack the courage to seek legal redress on the violations of their rights due to lack of positive response from the society. Domestic violence is so entrenched in our society that even the victims condone such violations of their rights as some perceive it as sign of love and the socio-religious belief that a broken marriage or relationship is a mark of failure in life. Due to poverty and economic dependence on men, many female victims may also choose to suffer in silence for fear of losing the economic support of the male perpetrator. This trend is evident in several of the reported cases where victims prefer to withdraw their complaints where it becomes apparent that punitive measures will be meted out to the abusive spouse. Their usual objective is for the authorities to appease rather punish the abusive partner for fear of backlash.
Where the victim is courageous enough to seek legal redress, the Nigerian legal system is more adversarial than reconciliatory. The outcome of most judicial proceedings is usually the termination or straining of the relationship of the litigants, and this is true of a domestic violence victim who takes the perpetrator to the police station or the court for redress under the present law. The police also operate from the prejudices and stereotypes of the male dominated customs and traditions of the society. Many victims of domestic violence, who lay complaints at police stations, are usually taunted, humiliated, and their complaints trivialised, probably because the complaints desk officer often engage in wife battery himself.
Under the current legal framework, there is no confidentiality of proceedings and there are no specially designated family courts. The result is that domestic violence cases, especially of sexual abuse, become a public affair and the victims become reluctant and withdrawn in giving adequate evidence required to prosecute the offenders.
For the Domestic Violence Law to be effective, therefore, the various authorities involved must begin a vigorous public enlightenment on the provisions of this law. The law “to provide protection against Domestic Violence and for Connected Purposes” must therefore not be a mere statute book but rather to be placed in the public domain for all stakeholders and general public to uphold. The populace must be sensitised on what constitutes domestic violence, stipulated punishments for perpetrators and the procedure for filing complaints which must be simplistic.
It may be necessary to create special complaints desk in all police stations where domestic issues including child abuse will be handled. Designated officers must be trained on the sensitive nature of handling domestic matters. Also, the authorities must organise continuous seminars and workshops for all those involved, judicial officials, law enforcement agents, legal practitioners and other social workers. There must also be the creation of special family courts where domestic disputes can be resolved and criminality prosecuted in confidentiality. Law enforcement and court mechanisms also have to be made friendly and accessible to women.
In Nigeria, the predominance of domestic violence has gotten to an alarming level that enacting new laws to curtail it might no longer be sufficient. The issue of domestic violence is a social malady that requires holistic approach and solution from all the stakeholders. The civil society, traditional and religious bodies, women rights groups, law enforcement agencies, all tiers of government, families must all work together with a view to stemming the tide of this dreadful societal ill.
•Ogunmosunle is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.