Women in West African countries that are recovering after years of war often face the additional threat of physical violence at the hands of their husbands. (Photo: Ann Jones/IRC)
A report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) finds that in countries recovering from war in West Africa, domestic violence is the biggest threat to women's safety.
The report, called Let Me Not Die Before My Time: Domestic Violence In West Africa, reveals that across Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone, years after the official end of these countries' brutal wars, women are being intimidated, threatened and beaten with shocking frequency.
Though domestic violence is a global issue affecting about one in three women worldwide, IRC chose to focus on these three West African countries to show how the problem can become more severe in post-conflict environments.
The report is based on 10 years of research and direct interaction with women and government leaders in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone. All three countries were embroiled in violent civil wars a decade ago, and those tensions remain.
In Liberia, where more than 200,000 people died and one-third of the population was displaced by war, residents still face dire poverty and an 85 percent unemployment rate. In Sierra Leone, where 50,000 lost their lives during a decade of war, survivors still live side-by-side with former members of a guerrilla group that regularly massacred civilians. In the Ivory Coast, once a prosperous and democratic nation, religious tensions between the north and south still erupt in violent incidents, despite repeated attempts to forge a deal for peace.
The primary threat to women in West Africa is not a man with a gun or a stranger,” reports the IRC. “It is their husbands.” (Photo: Goze Martine/IRC)
Social and economic recovery is an ongoing struggle in all three countries, and this has been a main focus for West African governments and international aid organizations. But for women, this means fewer resources are available to address a more personal security issue.
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, reports the IRC. It is their husbands.
According to the report, the types of intimate partner abuse most reported are physical assault, denial of resources or opportunities, and emotional abuse. This violence tends to be part of a pattern, rather than a single outburst.
Over two-thirds of survivors of domestic violence in Ivory Coast, Liberia and Sierra Leone who have sought support from the IRC since 2010 have reported experiencing at least one prior incident of violence from the same partner; 53 percent of those cases required medical attention. Each time a survivor files a report, there is a chance to intervene and stop the violence before it gets worse.
Currently, women tend not to report domestic violence even to friends and family in their community. IRC reports that victims feel a sense of helplessness since local law enforcement agencies are often ineffective, or even apathetic.
[Women] express deep frustration that the courts and the police do not meet their needs for justice, for protection and for assistance, said the report. In the best scenario, they will be stuck in a lengthy legal proceeding that they cannot afford. Worse, reporting will do nothing but anger an abusive spouse and reinforce perceptions held by survivors that they have no recourse.
Part of the solution to domestic violence in West Africa is encouraging open dialogue between women and their communities.
The way forward involves greater awareness, more effective methods of intervention, and increased funding for programs that already exist to fight domestic abuse. IRC calls on the United Nations, the United States' government, and non-governmental aid organizations to take a greater role in addressing this issue.
The International Rescue Committee is a U.S.-based organization that responds to humanitarian crises around the world; it operates in more than 40 countries. IRC staff work directly with war survivors and refugees to help communities recover and rebuild in the wake of disaster.
Based on interactions with West African women, governments and international organizations, the IRC reports that domestic violence has been woefully under-prioritized as a humanitarian issue.
It is time for the humanitarian community to confront the violence occurring behind closed doors and ensure that in countries transitioning to peace, that peace extends to the home.