Wives in post-conflict West Africa suffer violence at alarming levels and with shocking frequency, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has said.
In a new report titled “Let Me Not Die Before My Time: Domestic Violence in West Africa,” the IRC says that the primary threat to women’s safety is not strangers or men with guns, but their husbands.
The IRC describes domestic violence in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone as an acute and pervasive problem that endangers, isolates and disenfranchises countless women and hinders recovery and development in their communities.
The report asserts that domestic violence, which is often exacerbated during and after war, has not been recognised as a “humanitarian” issue by the international aid community, despite its devastating impact on women in countries emerging from crisis.
“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,” says IRC President George Rupp. “It is time to recognise domestic violence for what it is – a public health crisis that requires urgent attention and resources in humanitarian settings.”
IRC statistics in the region indicate that 63% of women victims of violence have been abused by their partners or spouses. Nearly 70% of the survivors have suffered violence by the same partner at least once before and 53% have required medical attention.
The report also cites research in Ivory Coast that found women at a heightened risk of domestic violence during and after armed conflict.
A 2008 survey in a violence-ridden district found that one in four women interviewed had been victim of domestic violence during that volatile year and 47% in their lifetime.
In the first six months of 2011, amid a wave of post-election violence, the IRC documented a 43% spike in reported incidences of partner abuse by women seeking IRC-supported services, compared to the previous six-month period.
Domestic violence also takes many forms, with physical assault the most common type of abuse reported to the IRC.
The report cites accounts of beatings, marital rape, stabbings and burnings, including one woman who was locked in her home by her spouse as he set their house on fire.
The report describes other less visible, but still insidious forms of abuse like the denial of food, medical care and money for basic necessities, as well as forced isolation, restricted access to friends and relatives, humiliation and threats of violence.
“Men in West Africa largely control household resources, including income earned by their wives,” says Heidi Lehmann, who directs the IRC’s global women’s protection and empowerment programmes. “In abusive homes, requests for food and money are frequently met with violence.”
While domestic violence is underreported everywhere, women in West Africa have even fewer incentives to disclose attacks or seek help.
“There’s an extreme scarcity of needed services for survivors,” says Lehmann. “Add that to abusive partners living under the same roof, justice systems that don’t take cases seriously and communities that tolerate domestic violence and it’s understandable that women feel trapped and unable to escape.”
Stigma, shame and fear also prevent women from speaking out, even to friends and family – effectively isolating them from the only support they have. This isolation, the report emphasises, also inhibits women from participating in the social and economic life of their communities and prevents them from taking advantage of opportunities that peace presents.
The report strongly urges the donor institutions and governments to recognise domestic violence as a serious humanitarian problem, and develop strategies to address the issue in conflict and post-conflict settings.
It also urges the governments of Liberia and Ivory Coast to pass domestic violence laws and commit resources to implementing them, while pressing the government of Sierra Leone to enforce its domestic violence law and ensure that police, local authorities and traditional leaders understand its provisions.