The year 2017 has seen a spate of grave domestic violence incidents in Rwanda. The most recent case was Mukeshimana Marie Rose, killed and buried in her compound by her husband. Sadly, most of these victims had been silently enduring physical and psychological abuse for a long time. Over the past few months, Rwandan women have come up in arms to fight this alarming trend, the key question being why these victims, educated or not, had been tolerant to such abuse, in spite of existing laws and programmes and the government’s clearly stated policy of zero tolerance to gender-based violence.
Where does it go wrong?
A few conversational incidents have left me wondering whether in some way, we aren’t missing a crucial link in the socialisation of the woman in our societies that sets her up for domestic abuse.
On a bus going to a woman’s-empowerment camp, some women got into a debate on the dos and don’ts in marriage. Interestingly, it wasn’t so much on equity or equality, as it was on keeping your man hooked. I mean like keeping your bedroom private; cooking his favourite dishes as a way to his heart; dressing to please him; washing for him, to mention but a few. An unfortunate woman claiming she had no time to cook and clean was nearly sliced in half.…’if you can’t do stuff for your husband, what is unique about you that he won’t find in other women?’ One of them was appalled that her friend did not dress up for her husband like he wanted. “Suppose he finds another woman that would dress for him, would you blame him?” Adamant, the friend asked, ‘If he doesn’t dress the way I want him to, should I dump him?’
I shudder when I hear this same talk being given to young girls at bridal showers!
So who is fooling who? The triviality of these conversations always shocks me. It is fine to spoil and want to please your husband. It is the implicit low self-esteem portrayed that brings home the futility of being the so-called empowered woman. The shame of a failed marriage and peer judgement still hold fear in the hearts of many women, who coupled with low self-esteem, hold on to abusive marriages, in the hope that things will eventually get better if they work harder at it. Niko zubakwa (that’s how homes are built), is the nudging we get from our elders and peers. As trivial as they seem, these conversations reveal a hidden gender equality contradiction. Whether empowered or not, do wives truly desire 100 per cent equality in the home? And what does equality really mean?
The gender equality battle is confusing when rights and roles are not clearly defined. By the nature of their reproductive role, women tend to be nurturers and community-based. Yet, this important role that is at the root of community and societal cohesion, is often abused, despised, and dismissed by many as inconsequential.
For decades, socio-cultural norms have dictated the household strata of authority (men and boys, women and children in that order). It is well embraced in the community, especially by women, who interestingly revere this submissiveness as proof of their status as “good women.” Women are often the main culprits in bringing up sons that despise and abuse women. In extreme cases, they participate in this abuse by harassing and tormenting daughters-in-law.
I came across this Wikipedia description of a type of self-esteem called (RCSE)- Relation Contingent Self Esteem that outlines some of the unexplained reasons why women endure abuse. It has nothing to do with commitment and closeness to a partner. Fuelled by socio-cultural values, RCSE is portrayed by fear, insecurity, and a preoccupation with the possibility of rejection, making one prone to misinterpretation of situations, and consistently in need of re-assurance of commitment. It may create strain and discord in the family. Unfortunately, abusive men are quick to sense and take advantage of low self-esteem. The female self-worth is limited to the success of the relationship and community perceptions.
Re-thinking the gender equality strategy might call for going back to basics at household level, to re-engineer values that allow a woman to proudly and confidently enjoy her inherent reproductive and nurturing role. Secondly, it means aggressively engaging both men and women to understand marriage as a harmonious partnership based on mutual respect and complementarity, enabling women to regain their self-worth that is not dependent on peer or spouse approval.
Where there is a good marital partnership, gender equality is certain, and gender abuse more than halved.
So what do women really want? Like one young lady said, “My potential husband should be the natural leader of the family. Nonetheless, he should consider my thoughts and values as his wife’. Therein is the desire and inner voice of most women.