Extended family, community key to curbing abuse
Ruth Butaumocho Gender Forum
Parents whose children have left to start their own families realise their family role still continues, not in a realm of domination, control, regulation, supervision or imposition, but in love, concern and encouragement . . .
Growing up in Chiweshe – kwaRwanga – was a memorable experience where I got to appreciate the importance of the extended family and the community at large.
Though very young and naïve, I can still recall certain incidences which showed the importance of the extended family in keeping the social and moral fabric intact.
The community had a role to look after each other, celebrate with you in times of jubilation and still be able to mourn with you when the chips were down.
It was within the same spirit that the community would chastise an errant and wayward individual bent on creating disharmony among the people.
On several occasions villagers would be ordered by the headman to convene by the gigantic mutsamvi tree – close to Nyemba Village – and witness errant individuals being admonished and disciplined for various offences.
The exercise was so humiliating not only to the individuals, but also to the extended family – who would sit together with the offender within a circle – while the punishment was being meted out to their relative.
The experience was so humiliating that no one would ever dream of repeating the offence for fear of dragging the family name into disrepute.
Because of the varying degrees of humiliation that family members went through, they would in turn police each other, to stay out of controversy.
As a result cases of domestic violence, rape, murder and sexual assault were very rare. This is largely because the extended family had a crucial role to play in shaping family values that would eventually cascade to the whole community.
Men didn’t think of raping their neighbour’s daughter or any woman, because they knew they would not face the consequences alone, but together with their families.
Women would not dream of being accomplices in rape or other sexual assault incidences because they knew they would be scorned by everyone, before appropriate punishment was meted out.
Everyone had a responsibility to look over each other. Of course, there were bad apples among the rest, but the problem was not as grim as we have it today.
Looking back, I can safely say some of the social vices that Zimbabwe faces today are largely as a result of the breaking up of family structures.
The extended family as a way of life has been eroded, and yet it was and remains crucial in building strong families and ultimately strong communities, where individuals are obligated to look after each other.
Considered to be an old-fashioned way of raising the family, the extended family remains an integral part of the family unit, whose presence has brought about positive spin-offs to the well-being of the nation.
The extended family encourages children to be independent and enables them to regulate their own behaviour.
The presence of different adult figures to serve as role models can help to emphasise appropriate behaviours while instilling as sense of belonging.
Sadly, these structures have been so fragmented, a development that has also seen an increase in dysfunctional family units, a phenomenon that was not there three or four decades ago.
Social vices such as domestic violence, rape and other sexual offences that Zimbabwe is facing can largely be attributed to the breaking down of the extended family, in addition to other reasons such as influence of the media and other factors.
The extended family is contributing to the demise families face today by turning a blind eye to problems they should be actively involved in, instead of fostering unit, promoting dialogue and holding family members accountable for their actions.
It is that disintegration that has seen the extended family violating the system structures and individuals they should be protecting.
At the beginning of this year, police made a shocking revelation when they said more than 70 percent of reported cases of sexual abuse of girls below the ages of 16 were perpetrated by relatives, guardians and neighbours of the victims.
Rather than becoming vanguards of moral virtues, the extended family has since disengaged from the whole unit, even creating enemies and dissent when family members should be united.
Of course, people might argue that the role of the extended family is no longer as important as it was three decades ago because of urbanisation that has seen families being split across the continents, but they are crucial in fostering unit regardless of the geographical challenges.
Extended families remain a great source of strength, a refuge and an eternal unit, because the whole family may be bonded by the same values.
Parents whose children have left to start their own families realise their family role still continues, not in a realm of domination, control, regulation, supervision or imposition, but in love, concern and encouragement. And when that cord exists between family members, people within the family unit, restraint can be exercised at all levels, while ensuring that individuals uphold good moral values.
In a world where everyone is under siege from social media, excess pornography, internet and social ills that have seen an increase in all forms of sexual assaults, gender-based violence and child marriages, the extended family can play a crucial role in safeguarding the vulnerable against all forms of abuse.
No discovery has to be made, no invention of some new device and no solution of an age-old mathematical riddle is needed to stop the rape, abuse and gender-based violence.
Society should re-examine the role of the extended family in curbing incidences of abuse.
Some of the problems would be a thing of the past if children and all vulnerable groups received the support of a vibrant extended family.