'Husbands are a threat'
Post-conflict Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone women seem to suffer cruelty with “shocking frequency”.
DAKAR - In conflict-hit West African countries, husbands often pose a greater threat to women's lives than an armed assailant, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) said in a recent report, but even in more stable countries, violence against women is hard to eradicate.
"Domestic violence is like diabetes. It is a disease that kills and causes damage, but which has not been very well documented," said Mariam Kamara, a mobilisation officer at the UN Women-West Africa Sub-Regional office.
In post-conflict Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone - where the IRC conducted a study of domestic violence - women suffer cruelty with "shocking frequency", said the report, "Let me not die before my time, Domestic Violence in West Africa", released in May 2012.
"Even though the focus of the humanitarian community has often been on armed groups, the primary threat to women in West Africa is not a man with a gun or a stranger - it is their husbands," the report said.
The three West African countries are emerging from conflicts that killed thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and unleashed widespread lawlessness. Violence against women worsens in times of war and often continues even when conflict has subsided.
In Côte d'Ivoire, 40 percent more cases of violence against women were recorded during the unrest that followed the disputed 2010 presidential elections, the IRC said.
Nonetheless, domestic violence is not unique to a particular region or country, and its causes are varied and complex, said Elisabeth Roesch, the author of the IRC report.
"It is clear across the globe that women face violence from their partners because they have lower status, and because they face really widespread discrimination enshrined in law, society and cultures," Roesch told IRIN.
In Senegal, which enacted a law against domestic violence in 1999, only a handful of offenders are brought to court, mainly due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence - medical reports are expensive, while prejudice often puts overwhelming societal pressure on women, which prevents them from reporting abuse, experts said.
"In the Senegalese society, it is very important for a woman to be married. If a woman takes her husband to court, it is said that she is not a good wife," said Benjamin Ndeye, the director of a state-run organisation that mediates in conflicts. "I have never seen an abusive husband receiving more than a two-month suspended sentence." Women also often face judges who tend to favour family unity, he noted.
However, years of sensitisation in Senegal seem be paying off. "The police have made a lot of progress - they now tend to refer women to NGOs," said Elisabeth Sidibé, a volunteer at the Committee to Combat Violence against Women and Children (CLVF).
The Association of Senegalese Women Jurists (AJS) and other NGOs have also stepped up the fight against domestic violence by conducting radio and TV talk shows, public debates and legal training.
The Association offers legal help and has launched a hotline for reporting domestic violence. "We cannot say the issue is not taboo anymore, but more and more women are daring to look for help," said Fatou Bintou Thioune, the CLVF's coordinator.
This is not the case in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Côte d'Ivoire, said Roesch. Liberian women are demanding protection from abuse and the IRC cited a woman complaining of police complacence about domestic violence. "Some of the police officers say, 'It's because of your ways that your husband beats you'."
Despite a 1981 Ivorian law protecting wives from physical abuse by their husbands, "The fight against this alarming phenomenon is not effective. The law alone is not enough. The whole community needs to get involved in the issue," said Fanta Coulibaly, the head of the national commission against domestic violence on women and children, which is under the Women and Children Ministry.
"I have suffered abuse for three months at the hands of my husband. Whenever he is angry he beats me badly, "said Rokiatou Bamba*. "I have asked that we have a talk, but for him it's a sign of bad upbringing. According to tradition, a woman does not ask her husband for talks.
"I'm doing all I can so that this doesn't affect the children, even when he beats me in front of them, I look for somewhere to hide and cry," she told IRIN.
The IRC said conflict "creates a particularly dangerous situation for women that the humanitarian community can no longer ignore."