When the Ju/’hoansi used to forage widely for their livelihoods, a number of constraints helped to prevent spouse abuse in their society. The demands of a harsh desert environment limited the adoption of hierarchical social structures, and the fact that food resources were widely scattered and unpredictable militated against the development of male competition. Also, the Ju/’hoansi strongly condemned physical aggression, which helped prevent the men from becoming abusive toward their wives. Women were self-confident in their gathering roles, and the society as a whole condemned fighting between spouses.
Patricia Draper explored these issues in a 1975 article that was scanned for this website two months ago. She predicted in that article that the Ju/’hoansi women might become more subject to abuse as they increasingly moved into permanent settlements. The more rigidly gendered division of labor brought about by the settlements, the increased isolation of people into discrete family homes, the increase in material goods, and the increased authority of males all pointed in the direction of the Ju/’hoansi adopting the paternalistic practices of their Bantu-speaking neighbors.
A more recent article by Draper published in 1992, added to the Archive of the website this week, reviews her visit to the Ju/’hoansi in 1987-1988. She realized that conditions were not exactly as she had anticipated 20 years earlier. She found, for instance, that marriages were generally delayed much longer than they had been 20 years before, due to the decreased value of males as hunters. In the permanent settlements, men are not necessarily as much sought after as sons-in-law as they had been when they were subsisting exclusively on the resources of the desert and relying for their protein on male hunting prowess.
Also, while the strength and skills of men are needed for some tasks in the settlements, for many types of work unmarried daughters, even if they have children, can be a considerable asset for their families. In addition to caring for their children, these women can help with collecting fuel, gardening, milking, hauling water, and the like. Parents no longer need to coerce their daughters into staying married to their mates. They can accept their grandchildren, born of liaisons increasingly with non-Ju/’hoansi men, and raise them in their compounds. In essence, when men become abusive, families that are prosperous enough can easily accept their daughters back so that the unions can be annulled.
Furthermore, the physical nature of the villages still helps deter violence. The houses are built closely together—perhaps not as intimately as the huts they had lived in out on the desert, but they are still very close. With ill-fitting doors and insubstantial construction, the Ju/’hoansi tend to live outdoors anyway, so everyone hears and sees what is going on, everyone knows when an incident of abuse occurs. A violent male cannot isolate his spouse and hurt her without the neighbors or family knowing about it and intervening.
Draper relates four different incidents of abuse that occurred while she was there. While she didn’t directly witness any of them, she saw the scars and interviewed the people involved shortly after each incident. A couple incidents occurred at a large village, an administrative center with numerous people of different families and ethnic backgrounds. The informal social controls were not as strong at that place as in the much smaller settlements.
Two of the four women remained with their husbands after they were abused. Both were middle aged, and neither had adult children with whom they could live. The parents of one woman were deceased, while the parents of the other were too poor to take her back. In essence, those two women had nowhere else to go. Two younger women who were abused quickly left their abusive husbands and went to live with their kin.
Draper concludes that while a sample of four incidents does not sufficiently describe the complexity of spouse abuse that does exist among the Ju/’hoansi, it does indicate some of the potential factors that may be at work in their society now. While their economic life has changed dramatically, so have some of the cultural factors, such as the fact that women marry much later now than they did formerly. But the social and physical intimacy of their settlements and the continued strength of the ties that women maintain with their kindred help to restrain outbreaks of violence against them.
The author speculates that the Ju/’hoansi may, in the future, adopt the more paternalistic values of their neighboring peoples, which could undermine the autonomy of the women. On the other hand, many of the customs that promoted the welfare of women during their former, nomadic, lives have persisted, so it is hard to predict how Ju/’hoansi women will fare in the future. They may well be able to continue their former traditions.