West Africa: Husbands worse threat to women than gunmen (IRIN)

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A recent report from the International Rescue Committee says that in conflict-ridden West African countries, husbands often pose a greater threat to women’s lives than armed assailants.

Even in more stable countries, violence against women has been hard to eradicate.

Mariam Kamara is a mobilization officer at the UN Women-West Africa Sub-Regional office. She says, “Domestic violence is like diabetes. It is a disease that kills and causes damage, but which has not been very well documented.”

The 2012 report found that women suffer cruelty with “shocking frequency” in post-conflict Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone,

The report says that “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 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 persists after conflict has subsided.

In Côte d’Ivoire, reported cases of violence against women increased by 40 per cent during the 2010 unrest that followed the disputed presidential elections.

The author of the report, Elisabeth Roesch, says domestic violence is not unique to a particular region or country, and its causes are varied and complex. She continues, “Across the globe, women face violence from their partners because they have lower status, and because they face really widespread discrimination enshrined in law, society and cultures.”

Senegal enacted a law against domestic violence in 1999, but only a handful of offenders have been brought to court. Experts say this is due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence, the expense of medical reports, and the prejudice against women that pressures them not to report abuse.

Benjamin Ndeye is a Senegalese conflict mediator. He says, “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.” Women often face judges who tend to favour family unity. Mr. Ndeye said he has never seen an abusive husband receive more than a two-month sentence.

Elisabeth Sidibè volunteers for the Committee to Combat Violence against Women and Children in Senegal. She says there have been improvements in recent years: “The police have made a lot of progress − they now tend to refer women to NGOs.”

Fatou Bintou Thioune is the Committee’s coordinator. She says, “We cannot say the issue is not taboo anymore … more and more women are daring to look for help.”

Some NGOs have stepped up the fight against domestic violence by conducting radio and TV talk shows, public debates and legal training. The Association of Senegalese Women Jurists offers legal help to women and has launched a hotline for reporting domestic violence.

But there has been less progress in Sierra Leone, Liberia or Côte d’Ivoire. The IRC report quoted a woman who complained of police complacence about domestic violence. The women said, “Some of the police officers say, ‘It’s because of your ways that your husband beats you.’ ”

Fanta Coulibaly is head of the National Commission against Domestic Violence on Women and Children in Côte d’Ivoire. She says that domestic abuse continues despite the law against it.  She states, “The law alone is not enough. The whole community needs to get involved in the issue.”