Women's responses to intimate partner violence in Rwanda: Rethinking agency in constrained social contexts

Jenevieve Mannell, Sharon Jackson, Aline Umutoni
Global Public Health 2016, 11 (1-2): 65-81
This paper explores instances of agency in women's responses to intimate partner violence (IPV) in Rwanda. The literature on women's responses to IPV conceptualises agency primarily as an individual's capacity to take action by reporting violence or leaving a relationship, obscuring other ways women may respond to violence in contexts where reporting or leaving are unlikely. We aim to replace this narrow conceptualisation of agency with a social constructivist focus on the meanings women attribute to possible IPV responses. We draw on data from a study of IPV in Rwanda, which includes semi-structured interviews with women experiencing violence and four focus group discussions with women community members (n = 39). Our findings highlight sociocultural, economic, political-legal and historical constraints that shape women's actions in this context. In relation to these constraints, women describe four possible responses to IPV: reporting the violence; seeking emotional support; 'fighting back' against violence; or remaining silent. While reporting and leaving violent relationships are identified, women also discuss the social constraints that make these actions extremely difficult. In designing effective strategies, we conclude that public health strategies need to consider women's understandings of their own actions, particularly in social contexts where certain actions may be constrained.

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