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Does Sub-Saharan Africa have especially high rates of Intimate Partner Violence?

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

A third of women have been physically or sexually assaulted by their partners. Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is the worldwide leading cause of female homicides. A woman is more likely to be murdered by her partner than anyone else.

IPV is high in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why do you think IPV is so high in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Does it reflect...

  1. Greater gender inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to other regions?

  2. High levels of conflict.

  3. Lower levels of wealth, education, and media access in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Is Sub-Saharan Africa more patriarchal?


Male dominance is not especially high in Sub-Saharan Africa, relative to other world regions.

Sons are no more likely to survive infancy - unlike China and India. West Africa's bustling markets are teaming with female entrepreneurs - sharply contrasting with their economic marginalisation in the Middle East and North Africa. Women mobilised for gender quotas after civil wars in Burundi, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and more recently Angola. These parliaments are now far more egalitarian than the United States.

SSA does have large gender gaps in schooling, though please see my previous post.

Sub-Saharan Africa is poorer, and poverty predicts IPV

Sub-Saharan Africa has relatively low levels of education and high rates of poverty.

Education and household wealth are strongly, negatively associated with both acceptance and experience of intimate partner violence. This holds worldwide and within Africa.

Poverty begets intimate partner violence in several ways. Economic desperation exacerbates stress and marital disputes. Impoverished girls wed early - with scant resources, support systems or much understanding of the world. And child brides are more likely to be abused.

Poor families cannot afford radios, televisions, newspapers, let alone smartphones. And lack of media access predicts acceptance of wife-beating. If people live in socially isolated rural communities, grow up in violent homes, and never hear alternative perspectives, they may see violence as normal. Women try to endure what they perceive as inevitable. In Bemba (a Zambian language I speak) this is called ukushipikisha.

Seldom seeing critique or protection, communities may underestimate broader support and be locked into a negative feedback loop. In rural Zambia (where I used to live), neighbours may privately condemn assault but hesitate to intervene because they anticipate social disapproval. But when villagers do see support for reporting, they may expect this too and so approach authorities - as suggested by an edutainment RCT in Uganda. Sub-Saharan Africa has low population density and low state penetration. Remote villages may be several hours drive from the nearest police post - or longer if potholed, dirt roads are waterlogged. If victims cannot get help, violence continues with impunity

Intimate Partner Violence is highest amongst poor people and within poor places.

As GDP increases current partner violence decreases. With rising levels of education, employment, urbanisation, state capacity, as well as democratisation and feminist activism, entire countries tend to become less abusive. Even if women only have primary education, they are much less likely to have been physically or sexually assaulted if they live in countries with a high percentage of female graduates.

Low GDP, low connectivity, and limited schooling all predict IPV. These are especially common in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Is Intimate Partner Violence just a function of poverty?

No. Definitely not.

Countries with much higher income than SSA still have substantial IPV, and this must be explained by additional, non-income factors.

In more patriarchal countries people are more likely to justify wife-beating. And widespread acceptance strongly predicts widespread prevalence. Macro-level inequalities sustain a dangerous environment. Assault is widespread in countries where wealth is controlled by men, as reflected in large gender inequalities in earnings, land ownership, and legal rights. And this violence persists through generations. Sons of abused women are more likely to beat their own wives. Their sisters are more likely to endure beatings. Violence begets violence.

In Muslim-majority developing countries women are LESS likely to have been assaulted by their partners (compared to Christian-majority developing countries). This is surprising since Muslim-majority countries tend to be more patriarchal - men dominate labour markets and legislatures. So how can reported prevalence be lower? Alcohol abuse - a common catalyst of intimate partner violence - is lower amongst Muslims. I suspect this is why IPV isn't even higher in the Sahel, which has low levels of wealth and schooling. South Africa's recent ban on alcohol sales may help explain why domestic violence reporting fell by 70% (which is consistent with hospitals and shelter admissions).

Strong, autonomous women's movements have led governments the world over to adopt comprehensive policies against violence against women. Without strong grassroots coalitions, governments may not enforce legislation (see my previous post on feminist activism).

Personal history, alcohol abuse, macro-level patriarchy, and feminist activism all influence IPV. So does poverty, at both the individual and country-level.

Poverty, grinding poverty is trapping African women in physically and sexually violent relationships, jeopardising their health and happiness.

Addendum: I made a mistake, I overstressed Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. I must emphasise conflict and intra-regional variation within Africa. I changed the title to reflect this point.

Central Africa has exceptionally high rates of intimate partner violence - just like other conflict-afflicted places (Iraq and Afghanistan). Speculatively, conflict might increase intimate partner violence.

The rest of Sub-Saharan Africa has similar levels of IPV to the Middle East, North Africa, the Andes, and South Asia. These places are much more patriarchal. And to repeat my previous point: IPV is widespread in countries with large gender inequalities in earnings, land ownership, and legal rights. Sub-Saharan Africa has similar rates of IPV not because it is equally patriarchal, but in specific countries where it is poorer and more conflict-afflicted.

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Unknown member
Oct 06, 2021

A strikingly similar pattern of both high ipv and low economic inequality can be observed among African Americans. Perhaps males are more violent because women can support themselves: their labour is not needed and they can thus fully engage in intrasexual competition with all the flamboyant violence that it entails. Scandinavian countries have long had high gender equality because you could not farm there with men who thought that the daily grind was beneath them.

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