We need to undo systems and structure of violence

Emilly Comfort Maractho

It took nearly nine months for Police to discover that a missing wife was resting in the family’s septic tank. Immaculate Aiso (Rest in Peace), it appears had been killed and her death covered up, perhaps sure she would never be found. And as it is said, the dead do not defend themselves. Maybe they do after all, given the turn of events that led to the discovery of her body. Following her story has been chilling. 

I am pleased that the media has given this story the attention it deserves. But my heart also aches for millions of people enduring abuse in one form or another for whatever reasons, and suffering in silence for the most part. Those who are lucky live long and continue to be brave or walk away before it is too late. 

For some like Aiso, time eventually runs out and they pay with their life. For those who rise above it all and get a voice to speak or seek justice, we celebrate their courage. If you have lived long, you have faced some form of abuse, directly or not. 

It is women who disproportionately find themselves on the other side of abuse, so I make no attempt to focus on men who may face abuse. Too often, many women suffer in silence, and even get blamed for not speaking up sooner. And it is what we need to begin to focus on. We should seek to appreciate why women in abusive relationships suffer too long in silence.

American writer and author of ‘One day my soul just opened up’, Iyanla Vanzart has a good perspective on the subject. 

She argues that most people go through the same relationship with different people. So from a first experience with an abusive or mean person, one finds themselves in similar relationships. So they try to endure. And in most cases, it reflects something deeper that a person needs to deal with. 

That something, is culture and the way that it structures power in a relationship. Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Ndangaremba captures this very well in her novel ‘nervous conditions’, what many women still have to deal with. She says that “this business of womanhood is a very heavy burden. How could it not be?..And these things are not easy. You have to start learning them early, from a very early age. The earlier the better, so that it is easy later.” And that is the tragedy that we have a well-entrenched system that we start to learn early on in life, thus the whole point of silence, and endurance of abuse. 

There are systems and structure of power that makes even the most progressive laws defective in practice. It is easy to assume that a man who is terribly abusive or accused of killing his wife is a sick man with a dark history. We think it is an isolated case that deserves condemnation. We speak of abuse of power, only in the context of public offices, when it happens most often in the home, in intimate relationships or work spaces. We even ridicule those who speak up and demand uncomfortable evidence in order to get justice. 

I recently heard a fascinating argument in a meeting organized by the International Science Council to discuss communicating science. One South African put it to us that the problem with violence is that we have focused too much on empowering people, for too long. What it does, he argued, is that we transfer violence to different victims (not yet empowered), and not deal with the bigger problem, which is how power is used and abused. 

Some of us who study affirmative action for women have made similar arguments that empowerment has tended to concentrate power in a few women and left majority to the same problems. It is like lifting a few people out of a problem, but who have to deal with the structure and systems created by that problem, totally trapped themselves, and unable to help those they have left behind. They are dealing with new forms of problems they encounter. In some cases, it is easy for them to learn to abuse that power too, because it becomes a much needed form of resistance or active copying mechanism. 

The structure and system of power has hardly changed in most of our societies. The Onebe story demonstrates how powerless one may be in the face of abuse. It also represents how our well intentioned laws like the domestic violence act of 2010 and constitutional provisions for protection of life and promotion of human rights sometimes fall flat. 

More importantly, this story is teaching us that we must move from empowering people to undoing the systems and structure of violence. Empowerment alone is insufficient because the oppressed learn early on, social norms and expectations that silence them. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the Director Africa Policy Centre and Senior Lecturer at Uganda Christian University.