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Why women do not leave abusive relationships: A Nigerian perspective

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Women play a powerful and multifunctional role in the development of every country across the globe. Often, they
take the lead in raising children and maintaining the well-being of the family, arguably one of the vital building blocks in many societies.

Their direct influence on individuals within a family and the unit as a whole helps to shape society. It is not an
overstatement to say that society suffers without the influence, impact and voices of women. So when women suffer violence, it is not just the individual women who suffer devastating consequences.

It is the health of society at large that suffers too; a series of ripple effects that negatively impact the victim, family units, and the wider community, with the potential for sustained cultural and economic damage.

Unfortunately, violence against women is real, and a global health concern, and intimate partner violence remains the most prevalent. According to WHO (2017), around 30 percent of women in a relationship globally reported that they experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Yet, intimate partner violence is the least recognised type of human abuse in the world.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines intimate partner violence, also called domestic violence, as the deliberate intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, and other abusive behaviour that is part of a systematic pattern of exercising power and control by one intimate partner against another. It takes a number of forms and they include physical, emotional, verbal, economic and sexual abuse.

Worryingly, intimate partner violence shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, with a lockdown in force across the world a few months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic, organisations such as UNICEF experienced a significant
increase in calls to its helplines concerning domestic abuse in some countries (Devex, 2020).

Also, there were increased conversations on social media around the issue during this time, recognising the increasing severity of domestic violence and the critical need to stand against it and offer victims a vital lifeline for support.

Domestic abuse victims can be men, women, children, or even domestic help. However, a multi-country study by WHO (2005) shows that women are more at risk of experiencing domestic violence and it is not easy to respond effectively to this violence because the majority of women see this violence as ‘normal’.

When considering intimate partner violence from a more specific African context, it seems to be broadly accepted as
part of Nigerian culture. It is observed in Nigeria that most women are maltreated by their intimate partners, which in certain cases ends with the death of these women.

The level of violence perpetrated against women in Nigeria is increasing, with two out of three women experiencing intimate partner violence in the family (Oluremi, 2015). Notwithstanding, many women remain in these relationships.

Individuals who have not experienced domestic abuse often wonder why victims do not leave such relationships. Still, more often than not, it is far from a simple case of walking away and not looking back. For many victims, significant emotional, mental, physical, financial investment and sacrifice has been put into building and retaining the relationship.

This article aims to highlight some of the critical factors that may dissuade women from fleeing abusive relationships in Nigeria, and they are as follows:

Fear of the unknown- Women face different fears and uncertainties when it comes to leaving an abusive relationship
in Nigeria. There is the fear of what people will say about them, the fear of being rejected by family and friends, and a fear of not finding love again. Some may fear losing custody over any children in the relationship to the man. Additionally, many women fear being unable to cope financially outside the relationship and potentially ending up homeless. These are just some of the many fears that can hinder women from leaving an unhealthy relationship.

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Self-identity- Marriage is so important to women in Nigeria that they still prefer to use ‘Mrs’ before their professional titles. A woman’s identity as someone’s wife is crucial to her in forming her own identity. Societal expectations are that a woman’s self-worth is dependent upon keeping a man and bearing his name.

If a relationship breaks down, a woman’s self-identity is often detrimentally altered, and her self-worth potentially tarnished for life.

Conflicting emotions- Women in Nigeria make excuses for their partners and sometimes blame themselves for being the
reason for or causing the abuse in some way. They even in some cases, feel that the abuse is a result of their partners love for them. They stay in unhealthy relationships because of the affection they feel for their partners and also the belief that their partner's actions are going to change, and things will get better in the future.

Maternal instincts- The bond between a child and a mother is usually incredibly strong. Women in Nigeria most times endure harsh treatments from their intimate partners purely for the sake of their children. They want their children to grow up with both parents in a family unit, however fragile that unit may be. They do not want to be accused by their children of destroying their family. A woman may also fear that after she leaves, the husband’s new wife may maltreat her children. As such, many women stay in an abusive relationship to protect their children
and maintain the family unit.

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Economic dependence- This is likely to occur in families where there is only one breadwinner or the women earn low
wages and depend on their husbands to provide for the family. Women tend to remain in unhealthy relationships when they rely financially on their husbands. According to an article in Forbes written by Salamone (2010), victims who leave abusive relationships in some cases return to their abusers because they were unable to sustain themselves financially independently.

It can be even more complicated when children are involved because they need to be taken care of, a task that
many women will struggle with if they lack the means to support themselves and their children financially. This lack of financial independence can be one of the most important hindrances in victims fleeing abusive relationships, and one of the most difficult to overcome without external support.

Isolation- Being isolated can make victims overly dependent on their partners. The perpetrator, in most cases, weakens the victims connections with family and friends, making it difficult for them to seek support and to recognise that they are being abused. As a result of not knowing where to go or who to turn to, victims often see no other course of action but to remain in abusive relationships in Nigeria.

Family dignity- There is a traditional belief in Nigeria that women build the home and make it a haven for everyone in the family. When a marriage breaks down, the woman is automatically blamed, and this gives her maiden family a bad name. No parent wants to be identified with having a daughter who is separated or divorced. In a bid to preserve the outward dignity of the family, women remain in destructive relationships.

Shame/stigma- There is a stigma attached to having a broken marriage in Nigeria, and women are mostly seen as the cause of these breakups. Majority of women do not want to face the shame of being talked about or discriminated against by some men and potentially struggling to find a new partner. They are also afraid of being judged or blamed by society as a whole for their problematic relationships, so they prefer to remain in unhealthy relationships to avoid this stigma.

Social pressure- The institution of marriage in Nigeria is a rigid and, in most cases, unbreakable one that society believes should be upheld except in a case of infidelity. Even then, the wronged party is expected to forgive this infidelity in some cases.

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Religious institutions in Nigeria forbid divorce, and there are strong cultural beliefs that women should endure unhealthy relationships and make them work because if there is a fault to be found in that relationship, it’s on the part of the woman and her responsibility to fix it. These religious and cultural beliefs play a large role in hindering many women from leaving abusive relationships.

These are just some of the individual and societal factors that stop women in Nigeria from leaving abusive relationships. We need to understand that leaving an abusive relationship is often extremely difficult. Instead of judging or blaming victims, we should try to understand the existing barriers they face and find ways to support and guide them towards making informed decisions to seek help.

Lastly, tackling the issue of intimate partner violence in Nigeria cannot be successful on a large scale without input and support from government and non-government agencies alike. There needs to be widespread implementation of prevention and response mechanisms and policies with full governmental backing, and most importantly perpetrators must be held accountable to deter further abuse and protect not just current victims but potential victims.

Chinwe M. Enyinna is a registered nurse in Nigeria and the UK. She has a masters degree in public health from the University of Chester, UK. She is the founder of D’survivor hub, an initiative set up to raise awareness and support domestic violence victims in Nigeria. To engage, follow @D’survivor hub on instagram.


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