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Understanding the Roots of Domestic Violence in Egypt - By Susan Hodges
spacer Kathryn Yount's research in Egypt led to passage of a Georgia law that defines female genital cutting as a criminal act. spacer

Life for women in Egypt is a portrait of contrasts. Wealthy women are more likely to have careers and participate actively in government, academics, and the social system to affect change. While middle-class women often enjoy the advantages of advanced education, most rely on their husbands for financial security. Ironically, women who live in poor rural areas have more flexibility in some spheres of life. Because poor women often work outside the home to earn an income, they have access to resources outside of marriage that middle- and upper-middle-class women may not have.
     Two sobering threads run through this mosaic of Egyptian women’s lives: Approximately 97% of all women experience the practice of female genital cutting (FGC), and roughly one-third are subjected to domestic violence.
     Kathryn Yount, an associate professor in the RSPH Hubert Department of Global Health and in Emory’s Department of Sociology, has been studying these issues for more than a decade. She found her life’s passion as an undergraduate volunteer in a shelter for women and children. There she discovered that health was a prerequisite for women to live their lives as productive members of family and society.
     Her interests eventually led her to Egypt. Working with collaborators at the American University in Cairo, Yount examined how women’s low status in Egyptian households may lead to poorer health, less health care, and higher mortality among girls. The study, which formed the basis of her doctoral research, encompassed 3,000 homes in Minya, a poor, densely populated region on the rural west bank of the Nile.
     Yount’s ensuing research in Egypt was so politically charged that more than once her study was nearly pulled from the field. Such roadblocks only strengthened her resolve to improve women’s health, sometimes with surprising results.
     Two years ago, Yount testified in Atlanta about the genital cutting of female minors, a common practice in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and in immigrant communities around the world. Yount’s expertise contributed to the passage of a 2005 Georgia law that defines FGC as a criminal act.

     “It was exciting to have the opportunity to describe these practices, their causes, and implications,” she says. “I was not expecting my research in Egypt to have such direct policy implications in the United States.”
     In a current study with the American University in Cairo, she is focusing on the roots of domestic violence in Egypt. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study asks a number of questions: Why do women experience marital violence? Is it because they’ve experienced violence in childhood? Is violence more or less common if the couple is poor, if the woman depends economically on her husband, has several dependent children, lives with her in-laws, or lives near kin? Her findings will add to existing global data on domestic violence against women, with the goal of raising awareness in Egypt and internationally to help implement policy change.
     The threefold project builds on 25 years of national Demographic and Health Survey data, which most recently included questions on domestic violence. In the field work portion of Yount’s study, interviewers will re-administer these questions on domestic violence to women of reproductive age. These interviews will help her understand the extent to which women talk openly and truthfully about their personal experiences. “In some parts of Egypt,” Yount explains, “60% of women in this age range have not been to school.” The acceptability of talking about domestic violence may differ among these women compared to those in the U.S.
     In Yount’s study, women and men also will be asked to describe what they consider to be acceptable and unacceptable ways of treating women. Understanding both views will help Yount and others change how men regard women and how women regard themselves.
     “There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that men tend to hold more conservative values than do women about gender relationships in marriage and family life,” she says. “Even educated men probably will be slower to change than will educated women.”
     Child maltreatment, experienced as FGC by Egyptian girls, often precedes domestic violence in marriage, according to her study. Women who did not experience FGC are at lower risk of violence. These women are less likely to enter marriages that accept violent treatment of women and more likely to object directly and leave those marriages. “Early life experiences often can socialize women to see maltreatment as normal,” says Yount.
     Fortunately, change is under way. In her Minya study during the mid-1990s, Yount discovered a substantial decline in FGC among the daughters of women in that study. She attributes this decline to the efforts of a grassroots Christian organization, which seeks to improve the treatment of women through community development projects that involve men and women.

spacer Elite and middle-class women in Egypt find it difficult to have it all. While they desire more freedom in habing a career and choosing a spouse, they often feel pressured to conform to traditional family roles. spacer
spacer Family safety nets
At present, few formal resources exist for women who experience domestic violence. Families provide the strongest safety net for women in Egypt, where one-third of all marriages are among blood relatives. Women married to a paternal cousin, for example, have 30% to 40% lower odds of experiencing violence.
     “Women who marry relatives often have known their spouses since childhood,” Yount says. “These women also remain close to their family of origin, which provides a safety net for women who experience conflicts in marriage.”
Generally, women in wealthier homes have a lower risk of violence, all else being equal. But if women are much less or much more educated than their husbands, the risk of domestic violence is high, both in well-to-do and in poor homes. Women with much less education may become trapped in marriages to husbands who don’t value them. Even if they have recourse within their own families, they cannot divorce without possibly losing custody of their children under Egyptian law.
     Conversely, when wives are much better educated than their husbands, violence is high, Yount believes, because husbands may feel threatened and use violence to assert their dominance in the household.
     While domestic violence is defined as a criminal act in the Western world, such behavior is still considered a private family matter in Egypt, where many men and women have conservative views about marriage and family. Changing such views is a challenging long-term prospect, in Egypt and elsewhere.
     “From a policy perspective, reducing poverty and improving the economic standard of living of households do not appear to be the key factors,” Yount says. “But improving women’s position in society and in families might bring about positive change.”
     Yount first tested this theory in Minya, then in Cambodia, and now nationally in Egypt. Her national work there has been widely disseminated to local, national, and international researchers and policy-makers through organizations that include the United Nations and Egypt’s governmental commission on the status of women.
     Yount knows well that the conflicts Egyptian women experience regarding their status in families and society is a charged topic.
     “Because of the conservative resurgence under way in Egypt during the past decade, it’s difficult for elite and middle-class women to have fulfilling careers and to meet all of the expectations imposed on them by families and peers,” she says. “Women desire more freedom in selecting a spouse and in choosing a career, but at the same time feel very strong pressure to conform to conservative expectations about their family roles.”
spacer "From a policy perspective, reducing poverty and improving the economic standard of living of households do not appear to be key factors. But improving women's position in society and in families might bring about positive change" says Kathryn Yount. spacer
spacer Gathering global evidence
When her study on domestic violence in Egypt is complete a year from now, Yount plans to pool study data on domestic violence from a dozen or more countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia to look at its causes.
     “The question I’ll continue to ask,” she says, “is this: Are women as well off when we allocate funds toward the alleviation of poverty as when we allocate funds toward the improvement of women’s position in the family and in society? This question probably will last my career and is one for which I’m building a portfolio of evidence to answer. It’s an interesting academic question that has fundamental policy and programmatic implications.”
  Susan Hodges is an Atlanta freelance writer.  


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