10/20/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

It's OK to Beat Her, Just Don't Kill Her

In rural Tanzania, it is OK to beat your wife. A man's role is to discipline her and that means you may hit her if dinner is late or if she hasn't completed her chores to your satisfaction. Women are powerless and ashamed to even discuss these beatings with their family or friends.

I met eight women from the town of Maore in northeastern Tanzania who had been chosen by their pastor because they were victims of gender-based violence. I was considering a project to deal with this issue but needed local information and Pastor Rose brought these women to a meeting with my team of U.S. health care volunteers.

At first, these women were shy. They talked to us in generalities until Dr. Jeff told them that gender based violence was a problem everywhere -- even the U.S. This surprised them and one-by-one, they told their stories. Two had husbands who are drunkards and are beaten by them frequently. One is a widow whose in-laws are trying to take her farm because women cannot own property.

"My husband tried to kill me," one said through tears and sobbing. "He cut me with a knife but I ran away and told the police. They said 'Go home to your husband and don't come back unless he does kill you.'"

"I was raped by my husband's brother," another one said. "I went to the health center and the clinical officer said I needed to get a form for him to report this. He said I had to go to the police to get the form. I was too embarrassed to do this. So, nothing was done."

Their openness led to more tears and hugs. "We feel better just talking about this," one said. "We should meet to talk."

"You have just formed what we call a support group," Dr. Jeff said.

"You can meet at the church and I will help you with counseling," said Pastor Rose. "We'll call it Bible study.

In the months since, these eight women have been meeting weekly at the Lutheran church for "Bible study." They share their stories and support each other. They also began a business and are generating income. Their husbands are still beating them because it is part of a man's role to discipline his wife. But the beatings are fewer because the women are bringing in money for the family.

There are laws in Tanzania forbidding this violence but the culture is powerful. Police will usually not bother to investigate these crimes. Each culture needs to find its own way to end this practice. The close relationships among women in Tanzania are the framework for a workable approach.

There is hope for the women in Tanzania. They are strong and when shown a way to deal with this ancient custom, they will move forward and declare their independence and equality. However, there will be backlash as these women are empowered. We can help them with information, support and money to establish their businesses. Social equality will come with income equality.