Needed? Mental Abuse Law


The Advocate

By Onikepo Braithwaite

Definition of Psychological Abuse

In Africa, “say no to domestic violence”, is just gaining some slight traction and momentum. In the past, in many African societies, domestic violence against the female spouse, was seen as a way of a husband chastising and disciplining his wife, as traditionally and generally, the husband is considered to be the Lord and Master of his wife.

But there’s a lethal silent killer, another form of abuse which is so common and often overlooked – Psychological Abuse. According to Wikipedia, Psychological Abuse a.k.a Emotional Abuse or Mental Abuse, is “characterised by a person subjecting, or exposing another person to behaviour that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)”. It is also “any act of verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, isolation, or confinement that diminishes someone’s self- worth and dignity. It can take many forms and can exist in every relationship, whether familial, intimate, or work related”. “The abuse builds as the abuser tries to establish dominance.”

My Friend’s Story

On a trip to Abuja, a friend and I went to visit another friend. When it was about 8.30pm, just as we were about to leave, one of her household staff came in with a bottle of cough mixture (drowsy type) and a teaspoon on a tray. We had been there for several hours, since afternoon, and she had not coughed once. I casually commented that I hated the taste of cough mixture and avoided it like the plague, even when I have a cough. She laughed sarcastically, and confirmed that she indeed, did not have a cough, but she had been taking the cough mixture every night for years, just so that she could forget her pain and sorrows, and be able to sleep peacefully at night. She preferred to be fast asleep, by the time her husband returned home from his late night gallivanting.

Our friend proceeded to tell us that, she was being emotionally tortured by her husband. Firstly, her husband was a chronic womaniser who regularly passed on different types of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) to her, and any protest from her resulted in his flying into a rage, threatening to beat her, and of course, depriving her of money. She was afraid of contracting HIV from him. He had never allowed her to work, despite the fact that she held a Masters Degree, and would always threaten that he would take the children away from her if she dared to leave him, especially as she had little or no financial means to maintain the children.

Most of the family members, including the women, simply told her that she had to grin and bear the ill-treatment, after all, he still came home to sleep regularly, he was paying the bills and putting food on the table, educating their children in the best schools. There was nothing that she is experiencing, that other women hadn’t been through. Did she want to leave him, and let him bring another woman into the house to ill-treat her children? He would soon run out of steam, tire of all that nonsense and become a model husband! In the interim…..?

So, over the years, she had consistently become a very unhappy, frustrated emotional wreck, feeling that there was no way out for her, until at least her children were old enough to fend for themselves. She also confided in us that, she had contemplated suicide a few times.

The irony of it is that, because my friend is a beautiful woman, the husband is also the most jealous man on earth! The reason he stopped her from working under the guise of preferring for her to stay at home to raise their children, was simply because he could not stand the thought of men coming into daily contact with his wife in an office setting, where he didn’t know what goes on or have any control over what transpired. Control. The funny part of it is that, partly out of idleness and a means to get out of the house from time to time, my friend became a very active member of her children’s school PTA (Parents Teachers Association), just like a few fathers who are very hands-on with their children and are equally as active in the PTA and school activities. A few times when my friend’s husband attended school activities like Sports Day, and witnessed her interaction with any of the other school Daddies, he would give her hell when they got home, resorting to calling her unprintable names. This is the story of many Nigerian women. It is called Mental Abuse.

Serious Crime Act, 2015

In December, 2015, a new law to punish psychological abusers, came into force under the Serious Crime Act (the Act) in the UK, that is, Section 76 of the Act. Convicted offenders face up to 5 years imprisonment or a fine or both (Section 76(11)(a) & (b)).

The Act makes controlling or coercive behaviour, not just from one partner to the other (like husband and wife or an unmarried couple living together), but also between family members, an offence. There is an inexhaustive list of behaviours, that are considered to fall into the category of controlling or coercive behaviour. For example, threats to hurt or kill, isolating a person from their family or friends, depriving a person of basic needs, threats of child deprivation, constantly putting a person down (telling them that they are worthless etc), criminal damage (destroying household goods and items, especially in a rage), financial deprivation and abuse, are all examples of this anti-social behaviour. All the behaviour exhibited by my friend’s husband, fits nicely into this definition. She is traumatised, a cough mixture addict, fears sometimes that he will physically assault her, fears for her life because she may contract the dreaded HIV from him due to her husband’s wayward life style, he threatens her that he will take their children away from her. His list of wrongdoings is endless!

The abusive behaviour must be a continuous affair, not just a one-off – a pattern of behaviour which seriously affects the abused person, either emotionally or on at least two occasions, the victim had cause to fear that their abuser, may physically assault them(Section 76(4)(a)).

The fact of the matter is, many Nigerian women face mental torture and abuse on a daily basis from their spouses, probably even more than actual physical violence or physical assault.

Enact the Law in Nigeria

Would it not be wonderful, if a similar law could be enacted in Nigeria? Though the offence may be somewhat difficult to prove, especially as it is a defence if the abuser can prove that his/her acts were done in the spouse’s best interests (Section 76(8)(a) of the Act), it would be a welcome development, to show that that this kind of anti-social behaviour from a spouse, is unacceptable. Certainly, the behaviour of my friend’s husband does not fall into the category of Section 76(8)(a) of the Act, and is a clear cut case of psychological abuse. Is it until the women end up in the asylum with a nervous breakdown, or commit suicide, that the society will recognise the fact that, psychological abuse is as much a crime as physical assault?

Proving Psychological Abuse

Experts have recommended that some of the ways for women to be able to prove this offence, is to keep a daily journal or diary, less emotions more facts. If there have also been abusive written communication from the abuser, like letters, texts or emails, it will certainly help to prove the crime. The children, and in the case of Nigeria, domestic staff, may also have been witnesses to the abuse, and can be called upon to testify. It is also advisable for a victim, to seek medical help, as well as report to a trusted confidante.

However, in a society where till date, when a woman goes to the Police Station to report her husband for domestic violence, bearing very visible injuries from the violent encounter, the Police say things like “Madam, a beg this na family matter, we no fit interfere, make you go beg your husband and settle!”, it is unlikely that a law against emotional abuse will be enacted, at least probably not for the next 50 years. The vicissitudes of life!