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The Power of Proverbs?

This post was originally published on the Triangle Global Health Consortium blog in support of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign.

Women are more likely to be physically assaulted or murdered by someone they know, often a family member or intimate partner.1

I’ve been collecting proverbs for an upcoming gender analysis workshop in Zambia—an icebreaker to get participants thinking about the gender interests and hierarchies we find in these expressions of traditional cultural wisdom. Proverbs can be the key to understanding and communicating the traditional knowledge of a culture.

My research left me struck both by the sheer number of proverbs from around the world that refer to violence against women in marriage and by how these little ideological capsules positively affirm the normality and desirability of violence against women in their relationships with intimate partners. Here are some examples:

To keep your wife on the rails, beat her­—and if she goes off the rails, beat her. (Puerto Rico, Spain)

Women and chopsthe more you beat them the better they'll be. (Germany)

Clubbing produces virtuous wives. (China)

Women, like gongs, should be beaten regularly. (United States, England)

Beat your wife regularly... If you don't know why, she will. (Zambia)

Do not spare a bullock or a wife. (Myanmar)

The nails of a cart and the head of a woman: they work only when they are hit hard. (Rajasthan, India)

For the man who beats his wife, God improves the food. (Russia)

The man who cannot slaughter his sheep or beat his wife (when she deserves it), it is better for him to die than to live. (Maghreb)

A bad woman and a good woman both need the rod. (Argentina, Spain)

A quarrelsome wife is rightly hit. (Germany)

If the wife is foolish, the lash should be strong. (Kazakhstan)

A nut, a stockfish, and a young wife should be beaten in order to be good. (Poland)

Affection begins at the end of a rod. (Korea)

Where there are no punches, there is no love. (Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina)

Love well, whip well. (England)

If you don’t thrash your wife she might think she’s already a widow. (Armenia)

Women, like dogs: the more you beat them, the more they love you. (Argentina)

Beat your wives with wives, not with a stick. (Maghreb)

Three sayings come from Rwanda alone:

A woman is like a goat: she is tethered where the thistles grow.

The quarrelsome woman is controlled by strokes of the pruning knife.

And, not surprisingly: No woman as beautiful as the docile one.

Compared to these, the Kurdish proverb—He who hits his wife hits his fortune—sounds positively progressive, if you can get beyond the suggestion of property ownership.

These proverbs are evidence of the ubiquity of violence in marriage. They suggest no mutuality in spousal violence.2 A husband’s interest in maintaining control and dominion over his wife is obvious. The misogyny is likewise obvious.

But how much weight do these violent and misogynist cultural expressions carry? Violence against women is multicausal and multidimensional, and we cannot attribute it to ideolgical expressions alone.

These capsules of traditional ideology nevertheless raise questions for human rights, gender justice, and anti-violence advocates. Are such proverbs passé in today’s world? Can they be ignored? Or do they still have power—whether conscious, unconscious, or subconscious—to communicate and reinforce harmful cultural values, interests, and desiderata? Do they have an impact on our self-valuations and our behavior? And what are appropriate responses, if any?

I am throwing out these questions to launch the Triangle Global Health Consortium’s campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. I hope you will comment with your responses and ideas below. 

1. AusAID. Office of Development Effectiveness. Violence against women in Melanesia and East Timor: Building on Global and Regional Promising Approaches. 2008. Accessed November 16:

2. Kishor and Bradley found no evidence of “gender symmetry” in spousal violence in a recent analysis of DHS data from Uganda and Ghana. The level, intensity, and severity of spousal violence against women were much greater than they were against men. Women were more than 2 times as likely as men to have experienced spousal violence, and men were are 2.5-7 times as likely as women to have perpetrated spousal violence. Women and Men’s Experience of Spousal Violence in Two African Countries: Does Gender Matter? June 2012. MEASURE DHS, ICF Macro Maryland USA. Accessed November 16: