When abused women kill

When abused women kill

Date: November 26, 2011
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Forty-year-old Patuma Rahimu thinks about her husband Julio everyday – the one who continuously abused her. A black eye, bruised nose, once a broken arm, all mementos from her husband’s beatings – until the night she killed him.

Everyday she carries pails of sand and water, delivering them to builders to earn a living. Her right shoulder aches, reminding her of the days and nights her husband would tug her closer to hit her. Everyday she bends down to shovel the sand into her pail, lifting it to balance the pail on her head, her lower back twinges, making her reminisce about the times her husband would knee her closer in the small of the back.

Her husband started cursing and assaulting Rahimu early in the couple’s relationship. The very last time, her husband of 15-years returned from a drinking spree and drunkenly beat Rahimu with an iron spade for two hours.

“The crime I had committed that day?” she recalls. “I did not ask why he had come home late. I had resolved not to ask this time, because the last time I did I got severely beaten.”

Rahimu recounts that she had bruises all over and blood oozed from her nose. In the midst of the beating, her husband furiously demanded she cook him a meal before he finished her off. He then fell asleep.

“I went to the kitchen while in pain and started preparing the Mbaula, but in vain. When he woke and saw that I failed to light up the fire, he beat me some more and I got too angry,” she said. Rahimu went into the house, picked up an iron hammer and knocked Julio’s head. He died immediately. She then turned herself in to police.

She says she never planned to kill her husband “I have always loved my husband, but he was too violent and anger pushed me into action. I was scared that if he woke up he would have killed me as promised.”

Rahimu says she presented herself to the police because she wanted them to understand that she did not kill intentionally. The High Court sentenced her to life imprisonment. After sentencing, Rahimu was quoted as saying she did not expect the lighter punishment. However, the Supreme Court of Appeal later acquitted Rahimu after considering the repeated abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.

The court said that while they had concurred with the lower court’s ruling that she had committed the crime of intentional homicide, they argued it was necessary to consider the circumstances that led to her actions. “She was a victim of Julio’s behaviour and that was the cause of the homicide,” the judge said. Another mitigating factor, said sources with the court, was that Patuma Rahimu voluntarily surrendered herself to police.

A study conducted by the Malawi Human Rights Commission in 2010 found that battered women often contemplate suicide because they see no other escape from the cycle of abuse, and that as many as a third of women who do commit suicide each year have suffered abuse by a male partner.

In the study, one woman in Blantyre expressed her wish to escape abuse through suicide because she thought “[death] might not be so bad; like passing out only you never get beaten again.”

Linda Walker, a renowned Zimbabwean expert in domestic violence who often testifies as an expert witness in cases where women kill their husbands after they pass out from drinking commented on Patuma Rahimu’s case. She mentioned that women, convinced the beatings will resume when the men awake, take the opportunity to murder their abusers. Autopsies show that some victims have blood alcohol levels of up to three times greater than the measure normally defined as intoxicated.

According to Walker, about 60% of women raped in their marriages report that their husbands have threatened to kill them. Three of the women in the study reported that they were finally able to break free of their abusive relationships when they realised that they would kill their husbands if they did not leave.

Angela Black, a student at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of Hampshire in the USA, compared 5 women imprisoned for murdering or seriously injuring their spouses at Malawi’s Zomba prison with 25 abused women who had not killed their husbands, for her thesis on what domestic violence can drive women to do.

She found that some of the personal characteristics of men inclined to violent, abusive behavior were the same qualities that initially attracted the women to them. For example, a woman might initially perceive a man who always wanted to know where she had been as intensely romantic. Only later, when she was unable to act or move without her partner’s supervision, might she realise that she had become a virtual prisoner of her controlling mate.

Black asserts that the intensity of these relationships further serves to isolate the women. “Women may be denied contact with family and friends to the extent that a casual conversation with a neighbor may provoke abuse,” she says.

Black found that many abusive husbands feared or believed their wives were sexually promiscuous. These mistaken belief frequently prompted extreme sexual assault. The student also discovered that some of the 25 women were thinking about killing their partners but did not believe they could actually follow through with their murderous plans.

Patuma Rahimu can feel happy that the courts granted her mercy and she is not serving a life sentence. However, for so many other women out there who may feel that suicide or harming their partner is the only answer, there is a clear need to do more to make sure that women who are in such situations are able to leave by any other means.

Penelope Paliani-Kamanga writes from Malawi. This story is part of the I Stories series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.



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