LONDON (TrustLaw) - The main danger to women in post-conflict countries in West Africa is not men with guns but their husbands, says an international aid agency that is calling on governments to criminalise domestic violence.
International Rescue Committee (IRC) said domestic violence often increased during and immediately after conflict and urged the international aid community to recognise it as a serious humanitarian problem
Domestic abuse doesn’t just endanger women’s lives but is preventing countries like Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone from reaching their full potential as they pick up the pieces after years of war, it added.
“Domestic violence is often considered a private matter, minimised as a cultural practice or seen as an issue that can be addressed only after peace and development take hold,” IRC President George Rupp said.
“It is time to recognise domestic violence for what it is – a public health crisis that requires urgent attention and resources in humanitarian settings.”
In its report Let Me Not Die Before My Time: Domestic Violence in West Africa, IRC describes domestic abuse in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone as a pervasive problem.
More than 60 percent of women asking for IRC’s help after suffering violence do so because of domestic abuse, according to IRC statistics. Of these, nearly 70 percent have been abused by the same partner at least once before and 53 percent require medical attention.
IRC research in Ivory Coast also showed that domestic violence increased last year when the country was wracked by post-election violence. The agency saw a 43 percent rise in reports of domestic abuse in the first half of 2011 compared to the previous six months.
Rupp said one reason why domestic abuse was often so prevalent in the immediate post-conflict period was because of the increasing use of sexual aggression as a weapon of war. When a conflict ends and fighters return home, violent patterns of behaviour towards women often persist.
Another factor is that women often take on the role of breadwinner and head of the household during conflict. But they may face a backlash afterwards, particularly if they have been more successful than their husbands.
The report tells of beatings, marital rape, stabbings and burnings. But it also highlights less visible forms of abuse - the denial of food, medical care and money, as well as forced isolation, humiliation and restricted access to friends and relatives.
“Men in West Africa largely control household resources, including income earned by their wives,” said Heidi Lehmann, head of IRC’s women’s protection and empowerment programmes. “In abusive homes, requests for food and money are frequently met with violence.”
Women suffering from domestic abuse told IRC of their deep sense of isolation. Shame and fear of reprisals often prevented them telling even their closest friends what was going on.
But they said they could not escape because they were completely financially dependent on the very men who were abusing them.
The law in these countries offers women scant protection, the report says. Police are not trained in investigating domestic violence, cases rarely go to trial and perpetrators go free. A complaint to the police often places a woman at greater risk of abuse.
One Liberian woman described how her husband attacked her with a machete, hitting her head and chopping off her fingers. He was jailed, but freed after his uncle bribed police. She now lives in fear of her husband, who punishes the family by denying them money for food and medicine.
IRC urged Liberia and Ivory Coast to pass domestic violence laws and commit resources to implementing them. Although Sierra Leone has domestic violence legislation, IRC said much more needed to be done to ensure everyone understood and enforced it.
In March, IRC’s Commission on Domestic Violence met Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has herself experienced domestic abuse, to press home the need for legislation criminalising domestic violence.
Rupp said Johnson-Sirleaf was very sympathetic. He did not think anything would change overnight, but was optimistic legislation would eventually be introduced.
The IRC report stressed that domestic violence did not just destroy women's lives but prevented their whole community from reaping the benefits of peace.
Donors have woken up to the importance of investing in women in the aftermath of conflict as a key strategy for achieving stronger and more stable communities. Women often spend money more wisely than men and are more likely to make their children’s education a priority.
But the report said domestic violence often undermined efforts to empower women through initiatives such as micro-finance schemes, either because husbands would use violence to seize assets or because they would abuse their partners so badly they could not physically keep their businesses going.
See also this blog: End of war doesn’t spell peace for women in West Africa
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)