DAKAR, 16 June 2008 (IRIN) - One in four women suffers domestic assault and battery in Senegal yet most suffer in silence because of a deeply entrenched culture of impunity and a phlegmatic response from the government, according to experts in the sector.
A study on domestic violence conducted in 2000 by the Canadian Centre of research and International Cooperation (CECI) in Dakar and Kaolack, 150km southeast of the capital, revealed 27.5 percent of women are subject to physical violence from their partners.
Aïssatou (not her real name), 35 and married for ten years, is sitting in the offices of Committee for the Fight Against Violence against Women (CLVF), a non-governmental organisation set up to help domestic violence victims in the Colobane district of Dakar. She is trying to find the words to describe her situation.
"At first, whenever we had an argument my husband would shout and occasionally slap me, then gradually he started to beat me harder,” she said in a frail voice, covering her braided hair with her white veil. "I do not know how long it lasted but I couldn’t take anymore and I eventually went to complain to the police."
She presented the police with a medical certificate as proof of her abuse, but her brother-in-law found out and ordered the police to remove her records from the file. Next time she went to the CLVF listening centre, to relate her story.
According to Fatou Bintou Thioune, CLVF’s only employee, the organisation registered 138 cases like Aïssatou’s between 2005 and 2007, but this represents a fraction of the overall number of cases of domestic violence. “It is happening inside houses all across the city, she told IRIN.
NGOs fill government void
Despite widespread awareness of the problem and commitment in the form of a national campaign a few years ago to address it, no government structure is in place to address these violent incidents, there is no toll-free number for women to report their cases, and no shelter has yet been created for women who flee their homes.
In lieu of government structures to address the problem, 17 women's associations have come together to form a network called Siggil Jigéen, to fight against domestic violence and bring the debate into the public arena. Many of them focus on raising awareness of the issue among communities.
The CLVF, another network of organisations is the only one to have set up listening centres – one in each of Senegal’s eight largest towns - where staff give women psychological counselling and legal and administrative support including on how to proceed with a divorce.
They also offer to mediate in disputes or provide couple counselling. Ndèye Ndiaya Ndoye, vice-president of CLVF says their efforts make a difference but the impact is limited. "Counselling can ease tension, but it does not guarantee the violence will stop. We come to talk to women, to bring them out of their houses and it is a start, but this does not solve the heart of the problem,” she told IRIN.
Impunity despite legislation
In January 1999 a law was passed in the Senegalese penal code punishing domestic violence with a prison sentence ranging from one to five years and a fine of between US$70 and $117. But this law faces religious and cultural resistance according to Fatou Ndiaye who works with Siggil Jigéen.
"The law is poorly enforced," Diouf Nafissatou Mbodj, president of the Association of Women Lawyers of Senegal (AJS).
A former judge to the prosecutor who wished to remain anonymous says judges often do not have a choice - they face pressure from families to minimise the penalties, and there are often limits to what families can pay, given their economic and social reality. "It's very easy for a judge to apply the penalty, but there are many practical obstacles that also have to be taken into account.”
Society encourages silence
Adji Fatou Ndiaye, a coordinator at the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in Senegal says part of the problem is that people accept domestic violence. ”In Senegal, it is accepted that women are subordinate to men. A woman should always follow a man – her husband, her son, her uncle, or her father - even if his expression of his domination turns violent."
She continued, “There are even religious arguments to legitimise this, and it [violence] is often accepted in families. It is not uncommon to see a mother proud to see her daughters suffer in her marriage, because people can say she has learned to behave in the household."
The result, according to several women who work in the sector, is that too few women dare to admit they are beaten. "When they do, they face enormous pressure from those around them not to," Thioune told IRIN.
Up to 60 percent of domestic violence victims turn to a family member and in three quarters of cases they are told to keep quiet, try to endure it, and find consensus with their spouse, according to CECI’s study.
“I no longer count the number of women who withdraw their complaints or ‘disappear; after having testified,” Thioune said.
Women also face practical problems in extricating themselves from their situation. In Senegal the majority of marriages among the 95 percent Muslim population are traditional unions observed in a mosque and not registered by the local authorities according to Thioune.
"The problem is that even when women wish to divorce they are often not able to provide a marriage certificate that would give them this right,” she said.
"It's a vicious circle," she pointed out. "There are so many obstacles to getting out of the marriage that many women drop out of the process, stay in their marriages and tell me they leave it in God’s hands.”
Stigmatise domestic violence
Women working in the sector say the first solution is to enforce existing laws more rigorously.
And they say if the problem is brought out into the open, and people – especially the young - are encouraged to talk about it, it could achieve more of a stigma. They also call on Muslim leaders, Imams, to be brought on board since they are a powerful force in Senegalese society.
By working with these groups the CLVF’s Ndoye hopes to stop the issue from arising in a marriage in the first place. “For when violence has appeared in the household it never completely disappears,” she said.
Pic: ICRC/Nick Danziger