What’s culture got to do with it? Causes of intimate partner violence

Sign from Men Against Violence Against Women project, Live and Learn Offices, Solomon Islands (image: Flickr/DFAT)

In my two homes, Australia and the Solomon Islands, gender-based violence is an issue that has risen on the political and media agenda recently. However, the issue is framed differently in each context, with troubling consequences.

In Australia, there is understanding among policy makers and the general community that violence can happen to women from all walks of life and the problem is often framed in terms of individual characteristics and behaviours of perpetrators – such as poor mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, and generational patterns of abuse. There is also acceptance that certain “cultures” (e.g., in sporting clubs) can have features that support violence against women, and programs are developed to encourage more respect for women. A range of services, such as men’s support groups, mental health support, refuges, and family counselling, are provided by both the government and non-governmental organisations to deal with the problem.

In Solomon Islands for many years there were only local, church-run refuge services and pastoral counselling regarding gender-based violence. However, in the past decade international agencies have increased funding to address reported high rates of gender-based violence, particularly after the civil conflict from 1998 to 2003. Initiatives include a new Eliminating Violence Against Women policy by the Ministry of Women, Youth and Family Affairs, Safenet (a referral network for people affected by violence), a new Family Protection Act with greater penalties and reporting requirements, and a DFAT-funded program called Safe Families that includes community and provincial funding for violence prevention (though at this stage only in two provinces, and services are still only available in Honiara).

Frames of “culture” and “women’s rights” have dominated discourse in the development sector regarding Solomon Islands’ high rate of gender-based violence. The two are often linked – i.e., the assumption that Solomon “culture” leads to views of women as inferior to men, leading to low levels of political participation and representation and high rates of violence. Bride “price” or payment from the husband’s family to the wife’s family during traditional weddings is another often-cited “cultural” factor.

The only major research report available on gender-based violence is the Solomon Islands Family Health and Safety Survey [pdf], prepared by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in 2009. It replicates, with slight modifications, methodology used for the World Health Organization’s Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women and interviews around 3,000 Solomon women.

This survey debunks certain myths – namely that violence against women by their partners is a product of low development levels on the national scale or education on the individual level. It finds instead that intimate partner violence is largely unrelated to most socioeconomic and demographic indicators, such as the age, education, employment, income and marital status of women.

The report turns to cycles of violence (such as perpetrator and survivor seeing or being subject to violence as a child) as a contributing factor. Men who are violent to others are more likely to be violent towards their wives, as are those who saw women and children being hit or were hit themselves when they were growing up.

Cultural change can legitimise violence as traditional gender norms shift. Qualitative interviews in the report point out that the view that bride price signals “ownership” of a man over a woman is a new perversion of the tradition that was formerly about cementing relationships between two families. Nonetheless, this new interpretation of what bride price means is used to legitimise violence against women. Pre-colonial behavioural norms that provided some protection for women, such as a belief that warriors who hit women were considered “weak”, have eroded in modern times.

Despite all this complexity, the headline figures from the report have been used to emphasise Solomon “culture” as a causal factor of violence. For example, Andrew Mason, the gender co-ordinator for the World Bank’s East Asia and the Pacific Region, said in an interview that the report “means that societies in the Pacific have a higher tolerance for men abusing their spouses. And in fact what’s interesting is that it’s a culture that includes not only male views, but female views. One thing we find, which was surprising and a bit disturbing frankly, is that 70 per cent of women in the Solomon Islands also say that under certain circumstances that husbands beating their wives is acceptable”.

The most common “circumstance” cited by women as providing justification for wife beating in the survey is if a partner finds out the woman has been unfaithful (63%), followed by disobedience (41%) and if he suspects infidelity (27%). Anecdotally people say affairs have risen in the post-conflict period, and jealousy and possessiveness are also common causes of domestic disputes. However, it is an awkward subject, and one that is usually brushed aside, with disobedience being given more airtime by the development sector as a perceived common justification for violence in Solomon Islands. This reinforces frames of cultural difference between Solomon Islands and, for example, the UK, where studies have also identified affairs and disputes about control as the most common circumstance men use to explain their violence (see, for example, here).

When surveyed about specific incidences of violence that had happened to them, women reported the most common situations contributing to violence is that male perpetrators were drunk (in Honiara) or were involved in disputes about affairs (in the rural provinces). A 2014 study of men and women admitted to the National Referral Hospital for domestic violence incidents also found alcohol was involved in many cases, although more data is needed to see if it was consumption by the male, female or both.

The underlying assumptions that men can hit women for transgressing certain expected behaviours (such as fidelity or obedience), and that blame can be attributed to alcohol rather than self-control, are shaped by culture and found in cultures worldwide. However, circumstances have arisen in Solomon Islands, due to modern pressures, that add fuel to the fire. One is particularly aggressive marketing, distribution and consumption of alcohol (the major source is Solbrew, owned by Heineken, but homebrew alcohol is also common). Sudden influxes of cash rents and payments to men for mining and logging (which can be readily spent on alcohol rather than the family’s expenses) are another contributor.

My own research suggests that, rather than a static “culture”, rapid changes to Solomon society and gender relations may account for the apparent rise in domestic violence. Over three months in 2013, I conducted a workshop in Honiara where participants each wrote a story on the theme “peace and conflict” and then collectively analysed the causes and manifestation of conflict. Participants framed the topics themselves, and used fictional stories to problematise, comment on and explore current social and political issues. Gender was an issue explored in narratives about identity conflict and those about interpersonal conflict.

The workshop participants described change and insecurity in gender roles as covering both male and female characters. Women are under pressure to fulfil domestic and economic roles (many are their family’s primary breadwinner) while being excluded from politics, and often limited in movement and social relations. Men are subject to increasingly violent models of masculinity and threats of violence while also taking on other domestic, economic and political roles.

In such an environment, a dialogue on how men and women can work together to change competitive and violent dynamics in relationships and families is needed to build peace. However, a focus on “culture” as portrayed in development discourse can lead to, at worst, a male backlash in Solomon Islands (as women’s rights advocates are seen as overly influenced by foreign ideas and organisations), and, at best, an exclusion of a broader understanding of the pressures and triggers to violence.

A starting point for balancing the frames applied to gender-based violence in Australia and Solomon Islands is the admission that most cultures have norms around protection of women and children and also, sadly, beliefs that support violence against them. The assumption that Australia is “safer” for women than Solomon Islands is questionable – in Solomon Islands a woman may be statistically more likely to be hit by her husband, but in Australia a woman is more likely to be murdered by her partner. But attempting to rank these things, or to attribute them to a particular locale’s or ethnic group’s “culture”, is unhelpful to understanding violence as a complex problem.

Rather, it is more useful to focus on how attitudes and dialogue influence behaviour, as well as what the common individual causes and triggers for gender-based violence are. As there has been in Australia, longitudinal studies (for example, here) and in-depth qualitative research (for example, here and here) are needed in the Solomon context to better understand why men are violent, what role men and women have in legitimising this violence and, critically, how this can be changed.

Dr Anouk Ride is a researcher based in Solomon Islands. Her most recent paper, “Involving Participants in Data Analysis”, discusses her experience of participatory data analysis of conflict.

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Anouk Ride

Dr Anouk Ride is a Scientist at WorldFish in Solomon Islands.


  • Thank you Dr. Anouk Ride and others for the insights into the issue of GBV.

    I like to comment on the concept of payment of bride price vis-a-vis GBV made by Dr. Ride.

    I like to stress that in the traditional cultural context of Lengo society on Guadalcanal, in Solomon Islands, the payment of bride wealth by a groom’s party to a bride’s party not only symbolizes a bond between the groom’s and bride’s parties per se but also extends to assert and exert a bond between a couple requiring fidelity and obedience by wives to the authority of the husband. That is exactly the culture in Lengo society of Guadalcanal where I am from. So it’s not ownership of wives as such but it’s based on gendered role expecting wives to be obedient to instructions by husbands for carrying out daily activities or chores aimed at sustaining the nuclear and extended family network. The point I am making here is that, payment of bride wealth does not bind 2 parties per se but the couple for mutual understanding and support for sustainable livelihoods. Communal culture of caring and sharing (wantok system) is complimented through this practice. And I believe there is similarity across the Solomon of this cultural practice. Wives are expected to fend for extended family members of both the wife and the husband. For instance, there was a couple I know, who are not from Guadalcanal who got separated due to disobedience by the wife of this gendered expected role of caring for extended family members of the husband. As Tom (pseudo name) puts it: “My wife Anna (pseudo name) did not accept members of my family to our Honiara home claiming they are dirty and uncivilized in using modern facilities like showers and toilets.” They are now separated.

  • Thanks Anouk

    Your commentary on gender-based violence (GBV) here really holds the truth on Pacific Island countries, especially Solomon Island and its neighbour PNG.

    In order for one to understand GBV, one has to understand the cultural context in which one descends from with respect as well. While there are other factors also contributing to GBV like alcohol or economic reasons, we may find other more complicated reasons that may associate with modernization or introduced influences.

    If we investigate further into the cultural context of GBV, there is cultural limitation and acceptable practice related to GBV; cultures have practice regulations on men violence against women, value of women in society, certain roles and responsibilities expected from women and men. However, with the modern campaign on GBV, some of these cultural practices can be viewed as GBV issues with our modern approach and understanding.

    As a remedial approach to these GBV issues is not only to introduce new GBV laws in the country or provide counselling services to the victims, it would be better to identify the root factors that contribute to the issue and address it. For example, an economic problem in a family would rise to GBV, but providing counselling to the victim or introducing new GBV law are not the solution, there one needs to address the root factor which is the economic situation in the family.

    • Thanks John Kalu, what you say makes a lot of sense and it is good to get some feedback from PNG. I agree there needs to be a critical examination of root factors and work to address these pressures for the sake of reducing GBV but also many other harmful effects such as impact on children, food security, poverty and the impact of these root factors on communities the ability of communities to respond to pressures and crises. Such a view can also help us understand better how modern influences, traditional norms and economic issues all influence culture and cultural shifts and how these may contribute to violence. Rather than blaming culture, we need to dig a little deeper.

      • Thanks again for your view into understanding GBV. I agree that an in-depth analysis needs to be done to understand the interrelated correlation between modern influences, traditional norms and economic issues and cultural shifts in society like PNG and Solomon Island.

        On the other end, we also have to point out that GBV prevention and remedial mechanisms and systems established in society sometimes failed to provide adequate and reliable services to the GBV victims, therefore victims often do not seek support. These mechanisms and systems needs to be well resourced and better equipped to provide sustainable support to the individuals and families affected by GBV.

        Unlike Australia or other developed societies where GBV prevention and remedial agencies and systems are well functioning, places like PNG and Solomon Island still struggling to provide the right balances. For example, the police are the first point of call for the GBV victims, but policemen are not trained to address that, they can only arrest the culprit. While another agency is responsible for proving counselling and comfort support with the support of another related agency, therefore the referral pathways are sometimes not helpful.

        Even in a country with strong legislation on GBV, enforcement is still a long way to go. We had these challenges in PNG. We really need an in-depth study.

  • Thank you Dr Ride. You make some very important points. Perhaps it would be good for us to look more closely at what is happening in Aboriginal Australia, Papua New Guniea, the Solomons, New Zealand (Maori) and so on as a comparative analysis, and see the changing face of culture in colonisation, with its contribution to violence within our societies. It is easy to point the finger at the rates of violence in our communities and blame culture. What is never discussed is the transgenerational layers of violence on Indigenous people, in the war zone experiences, the colonial interface of violence on Indigenous women, the intrusion into gender relationships, and the legitimisation of violence in its various forms, on Indigenous women by the colonial masters. The term ‘gender-based violence has problems, from my perspective, unless we also look at the violence perpetrated during the war on populations whose countries were used to fight the war. We need to understand the trauma experienced in violent interactions, and how that is passed down across generations to now be named as culture.

    • Yes Judy I totally agree and I know myself and others here have been inspired by your more wholistic approach to violence so thanks for your comments. The impact of colonialisation (both past and present) on gender roles, violence in families and relations between tribes and families is rarely acknowledged in ‘gender-based violence’ literature about developing country contexts, unlike other places e.g. the Victorian Government which acknowledge these broader causal factors and the role of Western governments in creating the conditions we see today. An intergenerational study would be valuable to really understand more about this in the Solomons context.

    • Beautifully articulated Judy – ‘gender based violence’ rolls off the tongue as though it is universally accepted and understood and that the explanations and the answers are clear and agreed. Your observations about the impact of colonisation and conflict on our own Indigenous communities and other places in the region are well made. There is a collusive silence from our own policy makers, donors, and international development stakeholders about the complexity of violence in its many forms and a lack of willingness to explore other explanations, narratives, solutions, and challenges. Your work in addressing violence is powerful for its respect, candidness, and willingness to work in other ways and contexts and which support women and men to find ways to change this together often using restorative processes which attend to the root causes for men and women.

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