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July 25, 2003

Over Half of Zimbabwean Women Believe Wife Beating Is Justified

More than 50 percent of women in Zimbabwe believe domestic violence is justifiable in certain situations, according to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. When presented with five situations -- arguing with her spouse, neglecting the children, refusing to have sex, burning food, or leaving the home without telling her husband -- the study participants agreed that a husband is justified beating his wife. The study, “Understanding women’s attitudes towards wife beating in Zimbabwe,” appears in the July 2003, issue of Bulletin, the newsletter of the World Health Organization.

Michelle J. Hindin, PhD, author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Population and Family Health Sciences at the School of Public Health, said, “While further research is needed to explicitly make the link between women’s attitudes towards wife beating and their experiences of abuse, women’s attitudes serve as a marker for social acceptability and reflect pervasive gender norms and the unequal status of women in Zimbabwean society.”

Women aged 15-24 were over two and half times more likely to believe that wife beating was justified when compared to women aged 45-49. Although fewer older women said they found violence against women acceptable, over 50 percent of the women in this age group justified beatings. The researchers said that the results are evidence that wife beating is standard behavior in Zimbabwean society.

Younger women living in rural areas, with low household wealth, less than a secondary education, and lower occupational status more frequently justified violence at the hands of their spouses. Women who share the responsibility of making household decisions with their husbands, live in an urban environment, came from wealthy households, or had secondary education or higher were less likely to rationalize wife beating. In addition, women who share the same level of education with their spouses were less likely to justify violence.

Across all circumstances, and after adjustment for sociodemographic and partnership characteristics, women were more likely to say that wife beating was justified when their husbands/partners had the final say in more household decisions. In contrast, when women reported more decisions being made jointly than individually, they were significantly less likely to say that wife beating was justified.

Dr. Hindin reviewed data from the 1999 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey, a nationally representative survey of 5,907 women between the ages of 15 and 49 years of age. Respondents were questioned about their work status, highest level of education, age, and the differences or similarities of their responses when compared with their partner.  

Previous investigations found that women are at a greater risk of abuse if their husband is of a lower educational or occupational status or if they live in a society that promotes male dominance. Those at the greatest risk of violence are those who have enough education to challenge existing gender norms.  

“Gender norms and expectations in Zimbabwe warrant the concern of public health researchers and practitioners. If nothing is done, the next generation of women may be just as likely to believe that wife beating is acceptable behavior since younger women seem to be more accepting of wife beating,” said Dr. Hindin. “Interventions that promote joint decision-making might be a promising strategy for increasing women’s views towards equality in marriage while promoting men’s views that household disputes should be settled with negotiation, not violence.”

Research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Brigham or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhshp.edu.