Customary wives in fight against marital abuse


Meko and Sandiswa, both in their late 40s, have been part of a customary marriage for more than 15 years. Meko is violent and very controlling whenever he gets drunk.

Sandiswa eventually broke with customary practice and sought help from the state legal system. First she went to the police station and then to the magistrate.

“One time he became violent with me and I took him to court and he almost got arrested,” she said.

Sandiswa dropped the charges after Meko’s sister pleaded with her because of the threat of public sanction. The sister then called a family meeting.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. Exact figures are unknown because many cases do not get reported and many reports of domestic violence do not end in prosecutions and therefore fail to show up in administrative records.

Women’s engagement with the police and the courts has shown up many problems regarding access to justice such as the cost of travelling to courts and police stations; slow response times by the police; few support services for women if they need to leave home; and, because of the high rates of poverty in South Africa, many women struggle to pay for basic necessities if they need to move.

Also, little is known about how extended families and family meetings, in particular, influence how marital violence is dealt with.

During the family meeting, Sandiswa acknowledged that Meko would be worse off in jail; he suffers from diabetes and she is responsible for taking care of him.

One can argue that women are spoken about and defined primarily in terms of their relationship to others, most notably their husbands. It is as wives, mothers and daughters that their issues are addressed. One of the most striking features of family meetings is the approach that the women’s best interests lie in supporting their families, both in terms of maintaining the marriage and as a secure base from which they can nurture their men.

Sandiswa’s final choice can be understood in terms of security, a legitimate strategy to protect herself from economic and social costs, including stigma, humiliation and shame, which all go with reporting abuse generally, but also with making a public statement that she will not tolerate abuse in her marriage.

It is important to raise awareness of the ways in which different agents in society facilitate and resist gender-based violence.

Research that examined the role of family meetings to resolve marital violence draws attention to the ways in which customary wives draw on two legal systems, statutory and customary law, simultaneously.

The customary system generally involves a family meeting; a traditional system of arbitration, which often takes place when violations of accepted norms have occurred and which may invite some sort of sanction.

There is a normative agreement that a family meeting is the correct forum in which to seek assistance with marital discord, such as violence.

The evidence that the justice system is failing women fails to show how customary wives are using the state system in conjunction with the customary system. Some scholars argue that family meetings play a negative role in maintaining marital violence by minimising the abuse or colluding with the abuser. But the meetings can also be seen as a way to change attitudes about marital violence.

The wives who made marital violence visible by taking it outside the family are, in fact, demanding that those in positions of power in the wider family impose consequences on perpetrators of violence. In threatening the use of the state, they are threatening to make the issue public, even while resorting to more private ways of mediating the dispute.

Take another example.

Thando explained how Thulani regularly “beats her and throws her and the children out of the house”.

She said, on the day she called a family meeting, he had “hit me on my head and really injured me”.

Thando lives close to Thulani’s mother and she reports everything to her. She first laid a charge at the police station but didn’t follow up on this. “The family suggested that I must not go to the police [and] rather we discuss the problem as a family.”

Thulani’s mother said Thando “was swollen and I begged her not to go to the police, and I asked her that we discuss this as a family and finish with it. All I said to them is, when you have a fight, there should be no police involvement; you should solve your problem without involving people from outside.”

Thando said: “Although I decided not to leave him on that occasion, I made a decision to myself that I will leave any time he leaves a hand on me again.”

One of the ways in which some customary wives tackle marital violence is to use statutory legislation, and the threat of the state, to draw attention to the severity of the complaint. Moreover, many women call family meetings to shame their husbands in front of their families.

These strategies are determined by the resources the women have access to. Although limited access to economic resources is a significant issue, the ways in which women would be left socially isolated if they reported the abuse is also significant.

Family meetings and their role in dealing with cases of marital violence should be recognised and it would be useful to build on this. Although I recognise the need for women to access the state system in relation to marital violence, it is unlikely that this system will cater to the needs of all customary wives.

Currently there are two systems, which are uncoordinated and unrecognised by the state. The state may be overlooking local services and community-based solutions that would otherwise assist customary wives and women in rural areas. The power of the Domestic Violence Act and the implementation of the law may be enhanced by other local modes of access.

Elena Moore, author of Divorce, Families and Emotion Work and, with Chuma Himonga, Reform of Customary Marriage, Divorce and Succession in South Africa, teaches in the University of Cape Town’s sociology department. She is the director of the Families and Societies Research Unit at the Centre for Social Science Research and is the acting NRF chair in customary law, indigenous values and human rights


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