By Vanessa Woods
In the U.S., 600 women are sexually assaulted every day. One woman is beaten by her partner every 15 seconds. Despite education campaigns, law enforcement, and penalties, violence continues to threaten women throughout America. What can we do to make women safe?
I believe one of our closest living relatives, the bonobo, may have the answer. Bonobos look very much chimpanzees, our other closest living relative, but unlike chimpanzees, they only live in one country -- the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- and not much research has been done on them. I’m working to change that. I have worked with bonobos for the last six years, studying their intelligence at Lola ya Bonobo sanctuary in Congo.
When we began our studies, I was looking for what bonobos lack that makes humans special, but the more time I spend with bonobos, the more I’m convinced it’s the other way around.
Bonobos are so closely related to us (98.7% of our DNA) that from a distance they look like ancient, hairy ancestors. But unlike humans, there is no war. Females are not beaten. Infants are not killed. All this is because of one simple reason – females stick together.
There was one episode where I saw Tatango, an unusually aggressive bonobo male, run up to Mimi, the alpha female, and backhand her across the face. He hit her so hard he almost gave her whiplash. Within seconds, five females in the group ran to Mimi’s rescue. They chased Tatango around the night building until he fled into the forest. When he continued his aggressive outbursts, those five females beat him so badly that they nearly ripped off his testicles. After that, Tatango never caused another problem.
One male is usually stronger than any one female. But no male is stronger than many females. Female bonobos have learned this; female chimpanzees have not. Unlike bonobos, female chimpanzees don’t form strong friendships. They tend to spend a lot of time alone. And when the males reach adolescence, they start battering every female in the group. Like among humans, most of the beatings aren’t about doing a lot of damage, they are about asserting dominance and maintaining control, which the male chimpanzees can do because the females don’t stick together.
As women, we can learn from this lesson. By supporting each other, by gathering together, we can gain strength in numbers. Scientific research has already shown that women are more intimate and emotional in their friendships than men, and they turn to female friends in times of stress. Our very biochemistry is set up to benefit by female bonding. The true purpose of a sisterhood isn’t to have gossip buddies, a sewing circle, or a lunch gang. It is a powerful alliance that will protect and shelter you from the battering of work, life, and the occasional chimpanzee male.
As the Czech proverb goes, do not protect yourself with a fence, but rather with your friends.
Vanessa Woods, author of Bonobo Handshake, works at Duke University in North Carolina and Lola ya Bonobo in Congo, where she studies the cognitive development of chimpanzees and bonobos. Woods has won an Acclaimed Book award from the Royal Society, the Australasian Science award for journalism, and her writing has appeared in various publications including BBC Wildlife, New Scientist and Travel Africa.