20 January 2013

Ethiopia: Abuse Gets Domestic


It was for the purpose of solving a casual family problem that I chose to stay at home last Sunday. Yet, the day marked a point of no return in my perception on domestic abuse.

An awkward knock at our door, at around 7.30pm, attracted the attention of our family, which was gathered to discuss a problem. The frequency, pattern and intensity of the knock indicated some sort of abnormal situation. My little sister reached the door at lightning speed and opened it.

Standing at the door was a relative of ours who seemed to be unusually sad. She struggled with herself not to cry, but it was obvious that she had had a bad time. She began talking really fast and incomprehensibly. As soon as the door opened, she rushed to the living room.

Following her was her husband who seemed to be extraordinarily angry. He also rushed to where she was, spitting abusive words. Our mediation could not help calm the fight between the couple. It was the heightened emotionality of the husband that continued to add fuel to the fight, however.

The wife was left on the defensive. She just reacted to her husband's claims. Whatever gender inequality existed within their household was visible at this very moment. Whilst trying to calm down the couple, my mind drifted to considering the extent of domestic abuse that exists within our society, and its current state.

So much of this kind of abuse is not reported, and thus not much is known about it. It is, however, the most damaging form of abuse.

Indeed, the old generation has legitimised domestic abuse by relating it with critical strands of a stable society. It has been ingrained so deeply within our culture that it has become difficult to identify. Certainly, it is one of the foremost, engendered issues within our society.

Most husbands think that they are legitimised to abuse their wives. They use the legitimacy of their marriage as a shelter for their rather unlawful acts.

And most wives think that abuse in a marriage is legitimate. Only few are informed about its unlawfulness. Needless to say, other economic and social factors cement this popular belief. Hence, most marriages end up being war fronts.

This specific trend seems to be slowly but surely infiltrating into established work places. It is common to see bosses being abusive to their employees. They employ the legitimacy of the working relationship as a shelter for their inherent abusiveness. Certainly, the case is prevalent in the private sector, for most private companies are managed like homestead kitchens.

Amazingly, the ongoing modernisation of our fair nation has not managed to reduce the prevalent acts of domestic abuse. Instead, it has transformed them, both in shape and impact.

Spend five minutes watching the national television station and one can see the evolved nature of domestic abuse. What was once only physical has now become psychological. It has all attached a price to itself. Hence, the more powerless one gets, the cheaper they are portrayed.

It is horrible that we have become abusive as a society. Every social act is changing into a zero sum game, wherein one will gain only if someone else loses. Worse is the fact that even voluntary social institutions, such as families, are changing and evolving into instruments of abuse.

Abuse is becoming systemic in our fair nation, and economic modernisation is providing it with the essential inertia.

My exposure to the fight between the couple made me think about whether Ethiopians, both as individuals and as a society, are getting more abusive or not. After I did a quick revision of my experiences, from my neighbourhood to my past and present work places, I have reached a conclusion that we are indeed becoming increasingly abusive. It is sad that we are legitimising abuse in all of its forms.

Our family finally managed to calm down the couple, who returned back home peacefully. But, we could not affect a sustainable change in the behaviour of the abusive husband, nor the passivity of the wife.

Changing this developing abusiveness of Ethiopians cannot happen without a wholesale cultural revolution. This time around, however, we ought to dissociate it from gender. What is of high demand is an approach that unplugs the root cause of the problem.

It is certainly high time for our society to clear its fundamental social institutions from every thread of abuse. There is not any other more urgent social phenomenon to attach our focus to than this.

Getachew T. Alemu Is the Op-Ed Editor for Fortune.

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