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Domestic Violence and the Law in Colonial and Postcolonial

Emily S. Burrill

Publication Year: 2010

Domestic Violence and the Law in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa reveals the ways in which domestic space and domestic relationships take on different meanings in African contexts that extend the boundaries of family obligation, kinship, and dependency. The term domestic violence encompasses kin-based violence, marriage-based violence, gender-based violence, as well as violence between patrons and clients who shared the same domestic space. As a lived experience and as a social and historical unit of analysis, domestic violence in colonial and postcolonial Africa is complex. Using evidence drawn from Subsaharan Africa, the chapters explore the range of domestic violence in Africa’s colonial past and its present, including taxation and the insertion of the household into the broader structure of colonial domination. African histories of domestic violence demand that scholars and activists refine the terms and analyses and pay attention to the historical legacies of contemporary problems. This collection brings into conversation historical, anthropological, legal, and activist perspectives on domestic violence in Africa and fosters a deeper understanding of the problem of domestic violence, the limits of international human rights conventions, and local and regional efforts to address the issue.

Published by: Ohio University Press


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pp. i-ii

Title Page/Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

Domestic violence is fraught and complex, as a lived experience and a social and historical unit of analysis. From conference to published volume, this project has been deeply influenced by spirited and engaging discussions with colleagues regarding our use of the term domestic violence—that is, why we use the term domestic violence and not sexual violence, gender-based violence, or household violence.

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Introduction: Domestic Violence and the Law in Africa

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pp. 1-29

Since the 1990s we have seen an explosion of public attention paid to domestic violence within Africa. New pressure groups have formed, new laws have passed, and new names have been given to old kinds of violence. From People against Women Abuse in South Africa to Raising Voices in Uganda to Women in the Law and Development in Ghana, African men and women have organized—albeit with varied success—to push the issue onto national and international political agendas.

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Part I: Domestic Violence, Relationships of Servitude, and the Family

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pp. 31-32

The first part of this book highlights early encounters between colonial law and shifting forms of power and authority in the twentieth century. In the early years of colonial state formation and the implementation of new legal systems, hierarchical relationships based on age and gender were particularly pronounced locations of household and kin-based violence. The chapters in this part demonstrate the ways in which legal structures sought to harden ...

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1. Domestic Violence, Colonial Courts, and the End of Slavery in French Soudan, 1905–12

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pp. 33-53

Between 1905 and 1912, upward of one million slaves throughout French West Africa left their masters. Some headed back to their homelands; others moved to the expanding commercial centers scattered throughout the region along the lines of rail being built, along the major rivers, or simply away from their former masters.1 Not all slaves left their masters; many slaves remained near their masters, if no longer with them.

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2. Domestic Violence and Child Circulation in the Southeastern Gold Coast, 1905–28

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pp. 54-73

in July 1918, Delphina Ocquaye brought a woman, Afua Fearon, to the highest colonial court of the Eastern Province of the Gold Coast for repayment of debt.1 The situation, like many court cases, was more complex than initially met the eye. The reason that Delphina was demanding Afua repay the debt now was because a girl or young woman,2 Nah Adaye, had run away from her house after Delphina threw soup at her. How were the debt and the movement of this girl connected?

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3. Continuum of Gendered Violence The Colonial Invention of Female Desertion as a Customary Criminal Offense, French Soudan, 1900–1949

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pp. 74-93

In September 1909, Filifin K. from Fod

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4. Violated Domesticity in Italian East Africa, 1937–40

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pp. 94-114

On 5 October 1938 the young Ethiopian Dest

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Part II: Narrating Domestic Violence

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pp. 115-116

Testimony and narratives of violence feature prominently in the second part of this volume. The stories that emerge from these sources demonstrate that across the diversity of colonial experiences, European rule in Africa tended to increase the vulnerability of women and children to domestic violence. Even in places where the colonial administration made attempts to raise the status of women, the imperative of maintaining order quickly trumped concerns for women’s welfare.

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5. Sex, Violence, and Family in South Africa’s Eastern Cape

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pp. 117-137

In the nineteenth-century Eastern Cape, Nondaba’s experience was not unusual. In King William’s Town district alone, thirty-eight cases with a similar pattern of facts—a woman complaining of sexual assault while sleeping, often in the presence of several witnesses—appeared before the magistrate between 1847 and 1902. In Xhosa, such assaults were labeled ukuzuma, and defined to a 1950s ethnographer as to “have sexual relations with a woman while asleep,” with the further explanation that someone who commits ukuzuma “is despised ...

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6. Child Marriage and Domestic Violence Islamic and Colonial Discourses on Gender Relations and Female Status in Zanzibar, 1900–1950s

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pp. 138-158

Islamic court records and archival sources reveal rare evidence about the approaches of Muslim judges, known as qadis on the Swahili coast, and British colonial officers to incidents of domestic violence and child marriage in Zanzibar from 1900 until the 1950s. Even though the Penal Decree of 1934 made it an offense to cause a woman below the age of thirteen to be married and raped, thus explicitly linking child marriage to child wives’ exposure to ...

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7. Fatal Families Narratives of Spousal Killing and Domestic Violence in Murder Trials in Kenya and Nyasaland, c. 1930–56

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pp. 159-178

Tabule, wife of Kipruto arap Soi, a Lumbwa woman from Kenya, pleaded guilty in 1947 to killing her husband by strangling him with a rope in his sleep. They had been married for eight years, had three children, and Tabule was pregnant with her fourth child. However, as the district officer (DO) of Kericho reported, she had suffered “severe persecution from her husband. He had repeatedly beaten her, and was known to be like a wild animal when drunk.” Tabule’s experience of domestic abuse roused the colonial state’s sympathy, and her death sentence was commuted to five months’ imprisonment.1

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8. Domestic Dramas and Occult Acts Witchcraft and Violence in the Arena of the Intimate

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pp. 179-200

Focusing on colonial kenya, I consider “witchcraft”-related violence as a space in which to explore the wider meanings of “domestic violence” and the broader scope of state interventions into intimate relations.1 Cases of witchcraft-driven violence can be read as being as much about domestic dramas as they are about occult actions. Focusing on such crimes opens avenues to further analyze and historicize violence as well as domesticity and intimacy.

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Part III: Domestic Violence, Conjugal Relationships, and the Politics of the State in Postcolonial Africa

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pp. 201-202

The analyses of contemporary debates about domestic violence found in the third part of this book are attuned to the lasting consequences of institutions and viewpoints forged during colonialism. As Saida Hodžić and Benedetta Faedi both note, the battles over the definition of custom continue to have a significant impact on the ability of organizations working to combat domestic violence to effect legislative changes.

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9. “I killed her because she disobeyed me in wearing this new hairstyle . . .” Gender-Based Violence, Laws, and Impunity in Senegal

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pp. 203-219

Doki Niass, a thirty-year-old woman, was beaten to death by her husband in 1993. She was beaten to death because she was sick during Ramadan, the mandatory Muslim fasting period, and was unable to cook dinner for his guests. It took two years of protest from women’s and human rights groups for the murderer to finally get arrested. Nonetheless he spent only three months in jail. The case was dismissed on the grounds that the forensic evidence did not prove that the beating was the cause of her death.1

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10. The Logics of Controversy Gender Violence as a Site of Frictions in Ghanaian Advocacy

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pp. 220-238

If one aim of anthropology and history is to particularize knowledge claims and write against globalist ideologies, a conceptual method we rely on is analyzing controversies in places where many see only flat surfaces. The cracks, fissures, and fault lines that disrupt the presumed global order reveal themselves in specific contexts, speaking against the universalizing tendencies of globalization itself and its theorists. Controversies erupt in surprising locations and remain buried in others.

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11. Constructing Law, Contesting Violence The Senegalese Family Code and Narratives of Domestic Abuse

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pp. 239-255

African family law has emerged in the postcolonial era as a reflection of competing claims about tradition and modernity, cultural authenticity and religious fidelity. Gender relations reside at the heart of these claims, and efforts to regulate them through law generate controversies with which the postcolonial state and society must contend. Issues such as domestic violence are deeply entangled with these controversies, and battered women hoping ...

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12. Domestic Violence as a Human Rights Violation The Challenges of a Regional Human Rights Approach in Africa

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pp. 256-276

International legal discourse has since the 1990s defined human rights to include rights to equality, security, and dignity and the enjoyment of fundamental freedoms. In this framework, domestic violence constitutes one of the most pervasive human rights violations.1 Analyzed as a historical manifestation of unequal power relationships between men and women, gender-based violence fosters practices of domination over and discrimination against women that leads to the failure of women to advance and fully participate in a society.

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Afterword: Finding Gendered Justice in the Age of Human Rights

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pp. 277-286

This volume is so important in that it creates a field for placing domestic violence and human rights within historical and political contexts of the colonial and the postcolonial. History and historical consciousness are crucially important to contemporary engagements around issues relating to domestic violence. This volume combines a number of literatures and fields that do not often come together: that of historical work on domestic violence, colonial African history, and contemporary human rights. While each of these literatures is ...

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 287-294


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pp. 295-297


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pp. 299-303

E-ISBN-13: 9780821443453
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821419298

Page Count: 303
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Colonies -- Africa -- History.
  • Family violence -- Africa -- History.
  • Family violence -- Law and legislation -- Africa -- History.
  • Justice, Administration of -- Africa -- History.
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