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Polygamy, alcohol linked to physical abuse in African marriages

Thursday, August 27, 2015

LAWRENCE — African women in polygamous marriages or with alcoholic husbands have a significantly higher risk of being physically abused by their husbands than women in monogamous marriages or women whose husbands don’t abuse alcohol, new research shows.

A trio of researchers pulled data from the Demographic Health Survey to look at intimate partner physical violence in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The four countries have high rates of domestic violence. The researchers selected the countries based on the availability of timely data and to represent different regions of Sub-Saharan Africa. They used survey responses from more than 14,000 married women. Depending on the country, 13 to 28 percent of married women experienced physical violence from their husbands.

The research, conducted by Elizabeth Asiedu, professor of economics at the University of Kansas; Christobel Asiedu, associate professor of sociology at Louisiana Tech University; and Tatenda Zinyemba, graduate student in public affairs at Indiana University, was presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association earlier this week.

“Domestic violence is a big issue in the continent,” Elizabeth Asiedu said. “In the U.S. there are many laws to protect women. However, in countries where some cultures don't consider domestic violence to be an issue of concern, such laws may not exist or may not be enforced.”

Depending on the country, women in polygamous marriages were about 1.3 to 2 times more likely to be at risk for physical violence from their husbands than women in monogamous marriages. About 10 to 17 percent of the sampled marriages were polygamous. 

Contingent on the country, women with alcoholic husbands were about 2 to 3 times more likely to experience physical violence compared with women whose husbands didn’t abuse alcohol. This was especially concerning since husbands were classified as alcoholics in 33 to 45 percent of the sampled marriages.

While polygamy and alcohol abuse were universal risk factors for intimate partner physical violence in the four countries, the researchers found that women’s education levels, whether women lived in rural or urban areas, the age difference between husbands and wives, and being employed did not have a uniform effect.

For example, having higher levels of education put wives at less risk for physical abuse from their husbands in Kenya and Zimbabwe, whereas it had no effect in Malawi and Ghana. The risk of physical violence was higher for wives living in urban areas in Ghana and Malawi but was not significant for Kenya and Zimbabwe. Having a job lowered the risk for women in Kenya, but it didn’t have an effect in Zimbabwe, Ghana and Malawi.

The results for polygamy didn’t come as surprise, to the researchers, because women in polygamous marriages tend to have less power and are more likely to be dependent on their husbands. However, they didn’t expect to see such a strong connection between alcohol and physical violence or that women’s education levels didn’t make a difference in Malawi and Ghana.

“The assumption is that women who are more educated are more likely to be economically independent and are more likely to have power in relationships,” Christobel Asiedu said. “So, you would think a higher education would mean a lower probability of being in an abusive relationship or staying in one. But in Malawi and Ghana that doesn’t really make any difference.” 

One of the study’s main goals was to show that risk factors for domestic violence differ throughout Africa, a point policymakers will hopefully keep in mind when drafting preventive measures.

The research was facilitated through the Association of Advancement of African Women Economists, which was founded by Elizabeth Asiedu, and strives to support the scholarship of African women economists.