The externs in professional mode

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Putting a Stop to Domestic Violence

By Alimamy Koroma, Extern, AdvocAid

Domestic violence generally refers to any form of violence between members of a household.  In Sierra Leone and particularly in the provinces where illiteracy is tremendously high, domestic violence is often perpetrated by men against their wives or partners who because of cultural reasons, ignorance and dependency cannot break from such chains of abuse.

Although there is no comprehensive statistics about the magnitude of the problem,  most experts nonetheless believe on average 6 out of every 10 women in Sierra Leone suffer some form of physical abuse from their partners at least five times a year. It is believed that hundreds of these cases result in serious physical and emotional impairment including deaths. In Portloko for example, which is one of the most impoverished districts in the country, domestic violence is so common that most people do not think of it as a crime, despite the series of laws recently passed by the government to protect women and the frantic efforts of human rights organizations to ensure compliance. According to the Police Superintendent attached to the Family Support Unit of the Portloko Central Police Station, men perceive their wives as personal properties and therefore have absolute rights to beat, kick or even smash them as and when they feel like. She said “Most times the women are hesitant to come to the station for fear of family abandonment and stigma. The few women who flee to our rescue only do so when the situation has spiraled out of control and the level of violence suffered by some simply defies beliefs. One woman came with half of her body burnt, after her husband had thrown hot water at her for being late to prepare the meal”. Stories like these are unfortunately far way too common, with women being beaten for all sorts of reasons, including for cooking late, for asking questions and for even staring at their husbands!

As mentioned earlier, the government in 2007 passed the DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACT whose preamble states its purpose as “… to suppress domestic violence, to provide protection for the victims of domestic violence, and to provide for other related matters.” The act gives a very wide definition to the problem and goes on to provide for various protection orders for victims. But, five years after, men continue to brutalize their wives and the vexing question therefore is why?

I suppose cultural perception of marriage is one of the fundamental reasons for the problem and any effort aimed at reducing domestic violence must hence take cognizance of this. Given that most women are illiterates, their identities are defined solely by marriage status and an unmarried woman or worse still a divorced woman is an embarrassment both to her family and to society. It is not surprising therefore that even in the face of death women refuse to say no to violent relationships. Take for example, a friend, who has been in a violent relationship with a man for whom she has two wonderful sons. Recently, after a minor disagreement concerning a nagging neighbor, he beat her up until she passed out and then threw her belongings out of the house. As one of the few men in the family, I had to go and pick her belongings out of the compound and brought her and the kids to the family home. When encouraged to take the matter to police she refused claiming it will bring curse to her sons. Two months without  her matrimonial home proved too much to bear and one morning she told me she had to go back because “She is too ashamed to be a divorcee”. I was disappointed that she returned and every night I have nightmares that her husband might kill her one day.

Economic dependency on men could also be a major factor as it makes women absolutely powerless to take decisions. Most landlords in the provinces refuse to rent properties to a woman mostly because they doubt their capacity to pay but also because of the stigma of a single, independent woman. I am of the firm conviction that domestic violence would hardly stop as long as men continue to be sole breadwinners of families. An independent woman is no doubt a respected one.

And finally, silence and inaction on the part of victims of domestic violence is arguably the greatest stumbling block against ending this social disgrace. No matter what anyone does, coward men who beat up their wives would continue to go unpunished as long as their victims remain silent and do nothing. This is not in any way meant to blame victims for the problem. But how can the law take effects if the primary witnesses refuse to give evidence or are unwilling to even report the crimes in the first place? The message to women in abusive relationships is therefore you are too precious to be reduced into punching bags. Sierra Leone is a civilized country which does not condone anyone beating up their fellow human beings. The law criminalizes domestic violence and next time you suffer abuse from the hands of your partner, do not remain silent, instead report it to the police or come to ADVOCAID at 39 Liverpool Street, Freetown or any other human rights organizations. We are here to help you.

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