The theme of this year's International Women's Day was women and men united to end violence against women and girls. Reports of violence against women and girls are on the rise in Senegal, and outreach workers say there could not have been a better theme.
Violence against women and girls in Senegal does not just refer to domestic violence and rape.
Women's groups are also fighting long-standing traditions of polygamy, female circumcision and the forced marriage of girls as young as nine years old. It is a battle they say is made more difficult by traditional Senegalese society and a lack of resources.
Siggil Jigéen is a network of 17 organizations that promote women's rights and fight violence against women in Senegal.
The group is based in Dakar, but has recently extended its activities to Kolda, Matam and Tamba, three cities where they have noticed spikes in violence.
Though violence against women and girls appears to be increasing in Senegal, the group is not sure whether that is due to an actual resurgence in violence or whether recent awareness campaigns have encouraged more victims to come forward.
The group's program coordinator in Dakar, Fatou Ndiaye Turpin, says the cases her organization and other groups see are just the tip of the iceberg. She says the culture of silence and impunity that surrounds violence against women is particularly severe in a predominantly Muslim country like Senegal. Not only do women not report the crimes, but discussion of some issues, like conjugal rape, are almost off limits entirely.
Turpin says it is especially rare for women to report domestic violence in Senegal. Families will try to deal with the problem themselves and will do everything possible to discourage women from coming forward. She says victims will often try to endure in silence. Turpin says for a woman to come to Siggil Jigéen, it means she is truly distraught and has nowhere else to turn.
In 1999, the state enacted a law punishing violence against women with jail time and fines, but Turpin says the law is not well-enforced and many women do not even know it exists. Therefore, a key part of the group's outreach has been translating the law into Senegal's many local languages and teaching women how it works. The group has also been training police officers and medical staff, who are often the first responders in cases of domestic violence or rape.
But Turpin says education is not enough. The laws that exist need to be enforced and strengthened, and the victims need support.
In October, the group opened its first drop-in counseling center in Dakar to offer legal advocacy and other services to victims and their children.
Turpin says most victims do not understand the legal process or even how to file a police report, therefore the counselors will accompany them throughout the entire process. She says money is another problem. Many women cannot afford to file a complaint, much less hire a lawyer. The counselors will work with other organizations to find the money needed to follow through on the cases.
A counselor at the group's center in Dakar, Ndeye Fatou Sarr, says since October she has seen about 20 cases, almost all of them domestic violence. Many victims will drop their cases before the lengthy legal process is completed, and domestic violence is still largely viewed as a civil matter in Senegal.
She says that is a problem. Senegal's legal system does not treat domestic violence as a criminal offense until the woman has been killed, but she says the psychological effects of violence and rape are just as devastating and should be taken just as seriously.
The group hopes to reach out to women in rural areas, but right now they do not have enough money or trained counselors. In the urban areas there are no crisis hotlines or shelters for the few victims who come forward.
Many of the women Sarr works with say they want to go back to school or open small businesses to support their children, but that is difficult.
Sarr is pleased that the theme of this year's International Women's Day includes men in the fight to end violence against women. It is often men, she says, who alert her to domestic violence situations. A concerned brother, uncle or neighbor will call the center or stop by, and then Sarr will go out to the home to meet the woman and find the best way to intervene.
Ending violence against women is part of a larger battle to increase women's economic independence and involvement in local government. Women are often the foundation for grassroots development, Sarr says, and the impunity that surrounds violence against women and girls undermines the progress of the country as a whole.