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May 22, 2012

Regional Conflicts Place West African Women in Danger of Abuse

by Kate Thomas

DAKAR, Senegal - West African women are at greater risk of domestic violence following conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee. The group says physical and emotional abuse have a devastating impact on women in countries where the scars of political conflict have not yet fully healed.

When Fatima, a woman living in rural Liberia, was unable to go to the market to buy the ingredients to make dinner for her family, her husband came home and beat her.

He took a kitchen knife, the knife Fatima would normally have used to slice vegetables, and cut three fingers from his wife's left hand. The reason she was unable to go to the market was that her husband had refused her money to do so.

Pervasive violence behind closed doors

Fatima's story is just one of many cases of severe domestic violence, both physical and emotional, experienced by women living in post-conflict countries in West Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee.

A new IRC report explains fighting does not stop after conflicts end, instead it often continues behind closed doors in communities and homes where women bear the brunt of post-conflict tensions. The IRC calls the violence "alarming, pervasive and horrific."

"Conflict increases women's risk to violence of all forms. Domestic violence in war and post-war settings, and more specifically the silence around it, is surprising given what we know about its prevalence. What we see during war time is that violence that was once very private often becomes very public," said IRC global women's protection and empowerment programs director Heidi Lehmann.

Using money to assert control

She said women frequently report incidents of emotional manipulation alongside acts of violence. Lehmann said money often is used as a tool to control women and prevent them leaving abusive husbands.

In many cases, women are trapped in unhappy marriages and lack the financial means to stand up to their husbands or seek emotional and medical support.

IRC President George Rupp said domestic violence in post-conflict communities is more likely after wars fought along ethnic lines or between rebel groups that used fear tactics to intimidate opposing communities.

Creating programs to help women

He said an increased focus on violence in the aftermath of conflict is crucial and that programs should be designed based on the solutions called for by affected women.

Sierra Leone recently passed a law criminalizing domestic violence, which Lehmann said is promising. But she said it is important to make sure the law is applied.

Lehmann also said she hopes other countries, including Liberia, will follow in Sierra Leone's footsteps.