This paper explores the ways that ongoing social changes and transformations around gender dynamics have affected the context of intimate partner violence (IPV) in southeastern Nigeria, where increasing levels of education and employment for women, and widely circulating global norms about gender equality, appear to be pushing back against gender-based violence. In order to understand and address the resulting tensions and to help reduce IPV, it is crucial that we explore masculinity and the perceived challenges to patriarchy in ways that do not simply condemn male behavior, but also put it in context. This should not be interpreted as a way to excuse men’s violence, but as a necessary element in effective strategies to curb it.
Drawing on several case studies, the paper focuses on the ways that wider social changes reverberate in the most intimate arenas of life, specifically at the intersection of gender, morality, and violence. The author analyses the occurrences, meanings, and social responses to cases of IPV in marriage in contemporary Nigeria in the context of transformations in the four region’s political economies, kinship practices, gendered social organisation, and religious landscapes/ Particular attention is paid to men’s lives, and the ways that changing ideas and practices of masculinity intersect with and help explain the dynamics of IPV. Issues discussed include marital rape, domestic violence, the relationship between love, marriage, and violence, the performance of masculinity, and the influence of Pentecostal Christianity. Throughout the paper, women’s experiences are pseudonymously relayed to highlight real-life examples of how these dynamics play out, and how they may be changing.
The author concludes that while the idea that masculine authority, and by implication male privilege, is culturally rooted and impermeable remains common in Nigeria (as is true elsewhere around the world), there are nevertheless signs of change. This is evident in an anecdote presented about how men in Nigeria jokingly referred to efforts of their wives or other women to challenge or change the nature of male authority as being “Beijing”, in reference to the Fourth Congress of Women in Beijing. While on the surface this may seem negative, the very fact that they were cognizant of the conference in Beijing and aware of (if resistant to) its implications in their own setting is itself taken as evidence of change by the author. Strides have been made recently in how women’s rights in general, and the right to protection from gender-based intimate partner violence in particular, have become acknowledged and adopted, yet worrisome signs remain. Not least is how marital rape is still an almost culturally unrecognisable concept. Additionally, trends that seem on first sight to be positive can bring unintended and unseen negative impacts, such as the rise in love marriage bringing with it the potential to make confronting abusive partners more difficult.
A plethora of civil society groups, NGOs, and community-based organisations, as well as media content, have taken up the cause of women’s rights and gender-based violence in recent years, though few specifically focus on marital rape. These messages come at a time when more Nigerian women are well educated, more likely to work outside the home, and their participation in politics is gradually growing; all things that bode well for the future. However, much greater attention to men and masculinity is needed, including policies, programs, messages, and interventions aimed at curbing domestic violence. Instead of condemning, or apologising for, men’s bad behavior, it is better to recognise that even abusive men are caught up in negative masculinities. There is no way to stop men from trying to be men, but it might be possible to slowly shift what that means.