End of war doesn’t spell peace for women in West Africa

May 22, 2012

The photo shows a woman sprawled in the dirt, grimacing in pain. A man is lunging towards her.  The image needs no caption – the man has obviously beaten the woman up and hurled her to the ground. His demeanour suggests her ordeal is not over.

This is the disturbing picture at the front of a new International Rescue Committee report on domestic violence. It was taken by an Ivorian woman who wanted to help highlight the severity of abuse happening in her country.

Fighters may have put down their arms in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but the end of war has not brought an end to violence for women.

IRC says domestic abuse often gets worse in the immediate aftermath of a conflict. Part of the reason may be the increasing use of sexual aggression as a weapon of war. When fighters return home after conflict is over, patterns of violence against women often get redirected towards wives and girlfriends.

During conflict women’s roles also change. With their husbands absent, they often become the breadwinner and head of the household. But when their husbands return there may be a backlash.

The IRC report, Let Me Not Die Before My Time: Domestic Violence in West Africa, focuses on Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone – all countries recovering after years of fighting.

IRC is calling for Ivory Coast and Liberia to criminalise domestic violence and for the international aid community to treat the issue as a serious humanitarian problem. Sierra Leone already has a law against domestic violence but it is poorly enforced.

The photo of the man beating his wife was taken as part of an IRC project called Global Crescendo, in which women in villages were given cameras and asked to photograph the good and bad things in their communities.

Heidi Lehmann, head of IRC’s women’s protection and empowerment programmes, said she was shocked by the graphic images of domestic violence that came back.

“We were surprised,” she said. “We asked the women ‘what prompted you to take these photos?’ and what the women said was that it’s so common.

“They consistently said … the men hurt us physically and even more than the physical injuries this makes us feel ashamed, this makes us feel humiliated and we want it to stop.”

Lehmann said the photos, which were shown in the women’s communities, had introduced the idea of accountability and had also been instrumental in opening up talks between women and community leaders on domestic violence.

IRC is now working in Ivory Coast to change behaviour and attitudes towards domestic abuse.

A similar project in Liberia also revealed evidence of widespread domestic violence.

One photo shows a woman crouching on the ground above a pool of green liquid. It doesn’t look too shocking until you read the caption. The woman is pregnant, and her husband has kicked her in the stomach and beaten her until she vomited and fainted – all because she didn’t cook his food on time.

Another shows a Liberian woman who has been so badly beaten up just after giving birth that she cannot walk because her legs are too swollen. A bad beating like this can lead to death, says the caption by photographer Zounan Sylvie.

“Our husbands must stop treating us like slaves. Slavery was abolished a long time ago. We want to say no to this situation, and we want it to change,” Sylvie adds.

The photos are a couple of years old now, but they have played an important role in starting to break the silence that surrounds domestic violence in rural West Africa.

Whereas rape as a weapon of war has quite rightly attracted much public attention and action, domestic violence remains a taboo subject. The aid world often views it as a private issue and is afraid of offending cultural sensitivities.

But IRC says it is time for the humanitarian community to confront the violence occurring behind closed doors and ensure that when men lay down arms the peace extends to their homes.


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