Archive for June, 2008

The following is a statement by Sue Else, President of the National Network to End Domestic Violence:

The National Network to End Domestic Violence is disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller. Guns pose a very grave threat to domestic violence victims, and communities must be able to implement the necessary tools to keep victims safe.

Domestic violence accounts for over one-third of all reported violent crimes in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Domestic violence claims the lives of three women each day and guns are undeniably the weapon of choice in these homicides. Studies show that from 1980 to 2000, 60% to 70% of abusers who killed their female partners used guns to do so. Simply having a gun in the house makes an abused woman seven times more likely than other women to be killed.

The mere presence of a gun, whether it is fired or not, has long-term, devastating effects on domestic violence victims. An abuser will often use the gun to terrorize the victim – pointing it at the victim, threatening to harm others or even commit suicide. Such threats lead to a constant state of fear and post-traumatic stress. Justice Breyer’s dissent pays specific attention to the deadly role guns play in domestic violence.

Although it makes it harder for legislatures to protect victims of domestic violence, the Court’s opinion does not strike down existing, effective restrictions that keep guns out of the hands of batterers. There is a well-established federal framework for regulating gun possession and such laws are precisely the sort of lawful regulatory measure referred to by the Court. For example, the federal Domestic Violence Offender Gun Ban prohibits anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence or subject a protective order from purchasing or possessing a gun. Similar gun restrictions at the federal, state and local level have been instrumental in protecting thousands of domestic violence victims. Domestic violence convictions and restraining orders are the second most common reasons for the denial of hand gun applications. Statistics collected by the Department of Justice and analyzed by the Congressional Research Service estimate that the Lautenberg Amendment had blocked over 150,000 attempted gun purchases by people convicted of domestic violence crimes.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence will work with the District of Columbia and other states to ensure their firearms prohibitions meet the standards of the Court while keeping guns out of the hands of batterers.

National Network to End Domestic Violence

The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) is a membership and advocacy organization representing the 56 state and U.S. territory domestic violence coalitions. NNEDV is the voice of these coalitions, their more than 2,000 local domestic violence member programs, and the millions of domestic violence survivors who turn to them for services. In 2000 and 2005, NNEDV members across the country played a crucial role in the reauthorization of VAWA. Through its extensive state and grassroots network, NNEDV continues to mobilize a powerful constituency to make their voices heard by policymakers. For more information, please visit

The U.S. Supreme Court in a major capital punishment decision struck down the death penalty for child rape, its first decision in more than 30 years on whether a crime other than murder can be punished by execution.

The nation’s highest court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the death penalty for the crime of raping a child violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the Constitution barred a state from imposing the death penalty for the rape of a child when the crime did not result, and was not intended to result, in the victim’s death.

Kennedy concluded that capital punishment, based on current evolving standards, should be reserved for crimes that take the life of the victim.

The ruling was a victory for Patrick Kennedy, 43, of Louisiana, who challenged his death sentence after being convicted for raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter in 1998.

Of the more than 3,300 inmates on death row in America, Kennedy and another man convicted of child rape in Louisiana are the only ones who did not commit murder.

The Supreme Court last ruled on the death penalty and rape in 1977, when it outlawed executions in a case in which the victim was an adult woman. It declared the death penalty an excessive penalty for a rapist who does not take a human life.

That decision left open whether the death penalty can be imposed for child rape. The Louisiana law, adopted in 1995, allows the death penalty for those convicted of rape of a child under the age of 12. It was later amended to change the age to 13.

Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas have similar laws. The last execution in the United States for rape occurred 44 years ago.

Kennedy, in the court’s majority opinion, declared the Louisiana law to be unconstitutional. He said a national consensus exists against capital punishment for the crime of child rape.

Kennedy, a moderate conservative who often casts the decisive vote on the closely divided court, was joined by the court’s liberals — Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The court’s conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both appointed by President George W. Bush, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — dissented.

He said it means the death penalty would be barred “no matter how young the child, no matter how many times the child is raped, no matter how many children the perpetrator rapes, no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how much physical or psychological trauma is inflicted, and no matter how heinous the perpetrator’s prior criminal record may be.”

Attorneys for the Louisiana man had said the death penalty for rape was allowed in only a handful of countries around the world.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund had said a historical consensus existed against the death penalty for rape in the United States, except for Southern states willing in the past to execute blacks, especially those convicted of raping white women and children.

The ruling was the second major capital punishment decision this year.

The court in April upheld the three-drug cocktail used in most U.S. executions, rejecting the argument the commonly used lethal injection method should be struck down for inflicting needless pain and suffering. The ruling ended a temporary moratorium on executions in place since late September.

A federally funded study has found that boys and girls are being sold for sex in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. The shameful practice was revealed by Shared Hope International, an organization dedicated to preventing sex trafficking and to rescuing and restoring the victims of sexual slavery.

The area was chosen because of an influx of sex trafficking after Hurricane Katrina, according to former U.S. Congressman Linda Smith, an organizer of Shared Hope International.

“When Katrina happened, sex traffickers moved into the area because there were buyers in the relief workers,” she said. She says there was also “a vulnerable population of girls who could be persuaded to join the sex-trafficking trade.”

According to Smith, state and nonprofit agencies have served at least 100 victims of sex trafficking in the Baton Rouge/New Orleans area since 2006.

At an average age of 12, according to Smith, American children are lured by traffickers and prostituted on the streets, sold over the Internet and exploited through pornography and strip dancing.

The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act provides that any minor exploited in the commercial sex market is a trafficking victim. That is not true in many states, however. Shared Hope International says children are often prosecuted as “child prostitutes” instead of being treated as sex-trafficking victims.

“When a victim is labeled as a ‘child prostitute’ she is viewed as a delinquent,” according to the group. Being correctly identified as a victim also raises problems. There is a shortage of protective shelters in the United States, so the child is often placed in detention facilities with juveniles who have committed serious offenses.

Louisiana officials are not blind to the increase in sex-traffic. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in New Orleans recently formed an anti-trafficking task force. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act makes human trafficking a federal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The Sheriff’s Association administers the task force, and the Metropolitan Center assists victims located by law enforcement.

Robert Mehrtens, an official for the law-enforcement commission, says the hurricane-devastated area below the I-10 corridor is “ripe for opportunists that may want to bring in human trafficking victims.” Not all human trafficking victims are sold for sex. The designation also covers illegal aliens who are forced to labor virtually as slaves.

The primary concern, however, is for young boys and girls sold in our state and sexually abused by their purchasers.

It is foolish to assume that it happens only in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Local law enforcement must be on the alert here and throughout Louisiana.

A number of new laws approved by the 2008 General Assembly will become effective on July 1. State Senator Sue Errington (D-Muncie) believes one such law could save lives through a state-mandated “cooling off” period for domestic violence.

The new law requires that individuals arrested for a crime of domestic violence be held in custody for a minimum of eight hours. Errington, a co-author of Public Law 44 (Senate Enrolled Act 27), said the additional time will provide victims with an opportunity to seek needed services.

“Providing at least eight hours gives the perpetrator time to cool off and allows the victim to seek alternative housing or other needed services,” Errington said. “Several communities have already implemented this practice on their own, and we hope that this new law will help stop the cycle of violence for any Hoosier family in

Domestic violence victims who refuse to testify against their abuser would no longer be threatened with jail time under legislation sent to the governor.

The bill by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, instead would allow judges to order victims to attend counseling or fulfill community service.

It was passed by the Assembly on a 42-22 vote, after an emotional debate in which lawmakers were asked to decide whether domestic violence victims should be punished as a way to put their abusers behind bars.

“The important thing to remember is these are victims of a heinous crime,” said Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada Flintridge. “These are victims who oftentimes have young children. To say to these victims you can face incarceration and time away from your children because you yourself (have) been a victim is just wrong.”

Supporters of the bill said victims are less likely to report abuse if they think they might be locked up for failing to testify in court.

Instead, advocacy groups asked lawmakers to change the law so domestic violence victims are given the same rights as victims of sexual assault. Since 1991, sexual assault victims have been shielded from jail time if they decide not to testify in a criminal case.

“If they don’t want to testify against their batterer, they should not have to be re-victimized, to be forced to do something against their will,” said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco. “I know this is a very difficult issue for many folks.”
Current law allows a court to lock up a domestic violence victim on a second contempt charge. It’s a tool prosecutors say is sometimes needed to force testimony critical to win a case.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a former prosecutor who has tried domestic violence cases, said victims could put themselves in more harm by not testifying against their abuser.

“Do I have a hard time of government thinking it knows better than the victim? Absolutely,” said Spitzer, R-Orange. “You, us, may take a very important tool away, and then she’s going to end up killing him or he’s going to kill her and the children.”

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the bill, spokeswoman Rachel Cameron said.

The Salvadoran parliament has given its support to a “Libro de la vida” (Book of Life), which calls abortion “an abominable crime,” precipitating a storm of criticism from women’s organizations that consider this blanket endorsement an evasion of serious debate on the issue.

The activists also say parliament’s decision runs counter to international conventions on women’s rights that El Salvador has ratified.

“These actions close the door on healthy debate on the crude and persistent reality” that this country is attempting to avoid, said Ima Guirola of the Institute of Women’s Studies (CEMUJER). Guirola said that the question “is not whether one is in favour of or against abortion, but what the state is going to do” about this practice, which is carried out illegally in unsafe conditions.
Health authorities do not have estimates of the number of illegal abortions performed in this impoverished Central American country of nearly six million people.

The stance taken by parliament will not contribute to “the formulation of public policies” in favour of women, Guirola told IPS.

The “Libro de la vida” is a declaration by Honduran lawmaker Marta Lorena Alvarado, which won the support of the Honduran Congress and was brought to El Salvador by the Catholic Church hierarchy, evangelical churches and the conservative Fundación Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life Foundation), which oppose the legalisation of therapeutic abortion.

After nearly six years of the “democratic security” policy of the government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, women activists in Colombia are as vulnerable to human rights abuses as ever, said female rights defenders who met recently in the Colombian capital.

Some 50 peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian representatives of social movements and women’s groups from around the country came to Bogotá to take part in a “workshop on strategies for the protection of women human rights defenders in Colombia”, where they shared their experiences with female activists from Asia, Africa, Europe and the rest of Latin America.

The workshop formed part of the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders. The campaign, which was launched in 2004, is aimed at the recognition and protection of women activists, based on the premise that women fighting for human rights and particularly women’s rights face specific dangers and abuses because of their gender.

The Colombian women who participated in the workshop face dangers like murder, forced disappearance, rape, torture and forced displacement.

“Even thinking has become a cause for being attacked,” said Pilar Sánchez from the eastern province of Boyacá, where the far-right paramilitaries and the armed forces have a marked presence.

“We women are abused for everything — for taking on leadership roles, for defending our rights, those of our children, those of our community. But also because of sex, religion — everything. In border areas it’s even worse, because we have to face the guerrillas, the ‘paras’ (paramilitaries), and the army,” said Sánchez.

“Uribe’s policies have brought greater insecurity for women. The misnamed ‘demobilisation’ of paramilitary groups, which actually continue to maintain control in regional administrative and judicial structures, has had an especially negative effect on women and girls,” María Eugenia Ramírez, of the Bogotá-based Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services (ILSA), told IPS.

In 2007, for example, activist Yolanda Izquierdo was killed in the northwestern province of Córdoba.

Izquierdo represented hundreds of peasant farmers who were demanding the return of their land, which was seized by paramilitary groups led by Salvatore Mancuso, one of the paramilitary chiefs extradited to the United States in May to face drug trafficking charges.

And in February 2007, Carmen Santana was murdered in the northern province of La Guajira and four other women were killed in other areas, all for the same cause: their activism in seeking the restitution of their land, in compliance with the Peace and Justice Law.

That law governed the recent demobilisation of paramilitary groups that are allies of the government forces in the fight against Colombia’s leftist guerrillas. Under the Peace and Justice Law, paramilitary leaders who confess to all of their crimes and make reparations to their victims are eligible for light prison sentences of no more than eight years.

But according to the activists taking part in Friday’s workshop, the law has not been complied with.

The Constitutional Court ordered changes to the law, such as a loss of legal benefits for demobilised paramilitaries who conceal crimes when they testify.

But the government’s surprise extradition in May of the top paramilitary chiefs cut short several key prosecutions that would have helped shed light on many of the most appalling war crimes committed in Colombia’s armed conflict over the last two decades.

Uribe’s controversial “democratic security” policy has extended state control to territory under the influence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group, and has drawn local residents into the counterinsurgency effort by arming “peasant soldiers”. It has also come under criticism from human rights groups, who say direct participation in human rights violations by the security forces has increased.

The Escuela Nacional Sindical (National Trade Union School) reports that 13 female trade union leaders were killed in the first 11 months of 2006, 15 in 2005 and 16 in 2004.

Yolanda Becerra of the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), a women’s peace group whose members for years have received threats in the northeastern oil-rich river port city of Barrancabermeja, was attacked in her home in November 2007.

Members of the paramilitary group Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), which emerged in the wake of the demobilisation process, “broke into my apartment, destroyed documents, threatened and tortured me psychologically, and took me out of the city,” Becerra told IPS.

“But they didn’t break my will. From Bucaramanga (the capital of the northeastern province of Santander), I have continued to work, fully committed to defending life and democracy,” she added.

“Anyway, I say I’m in a good mood because I am never threatened all by myself,” she joked. “They always threaten me along with respected, well-known figures, like (Jesuit) Father Francisco de Roux.”

Not only community leaders and activists are targeted by the violence, but also ordinary people living in regions where the leftist guerrillas have traditionally maintained control.

“We have put in place early warning and protection systems, and work constantly” to defend women activists, said Ramírez. “Last year, we managed to get eight women and their families out of the country because of the repeated threats against them. But the situation is very serious.”

Psychologist Claudia Girón said six women community leaders and activists have been killed, and many more have received death threats, in areas near the capital since the Mar. 6 national march against state and paramilitary violence.

Girón is the wife of Iván Cepeda, the head of the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), which organised the Mar. 6 march.

“For that reason I am calling on the international bodies to stay alert to the situation in Colombia,” Girón told the audience at the workshop.

Swedish Ambassador Lena Nordstrom said “we will continue working, as we have in recent years, on behalf of Colombian women affected by forced displacement and rights violations. This is a strong commitment for my country,” she said.

Ramírez said her group would continue pressing for enforcement of existing laws in Colombia and for the implementation of the recommendations of the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“We are also putting into practice protection mechanisms among ourselves, and meetings like these ones are important sustenance for the soul,” said Ramírez.

Sumila Abeyke, a representative of the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders, said efforts would continue to be made to strengthen strategies aimed at protecting women victims and human rights activists.

“This is a challenge that we will face, with a sense of solidarity,” she said.

Abeyke underlined the commitment to “tell these stories throughout our networks,” in order to maintain “a sense of solidarity, and to continue watching out for each other, overcoming the real and imaginary borders that have been imposed on us.”

The main groups involved in the International Campaign are Amnesty International, Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), Forum Asia, Inform, Frontline, International League for Human Rights, Amanitare, Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, and the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights

Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transgendered lesbian who works for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, said the LGBT community in her native Uganda is more united than it’s ever been before — in the face of unrelenting hostility.

In the latest acts of repression against Uganda’s LGBT community, three gay activists were arrested on June 4 as they tried to draw attention to the need for HIV prevention among gay people during a peaceful protest at a major AIDS conference, co-sponsored by the Bush administration. The government of ultra-homophobic President Yoweri Museveni has consistently refused to include any focus on prevention among LGBT Ugandans in its response to the pandemic.

The trio – Julian Onziema, 28, a transgendered man, 27-year-old lesbian Valentine Kalende, and Usaam Mukwaya, a 28-year-old gay man – were part of a group of activists from the nation’s leading gay rights coalition, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG), whose protest came in response to a new round of anti-gay declarations from the head of the country’s AIDS-fighting effort.

“Gays are one of the drivers of HIV in Uganda, but because of meager resources we cannot direct our programs at them at this time,” the chairman of the Uganda AIDS Commission, Dr. Kihumuro Apuuli, told reporters in the capital Kampala on June 2, according to Reuters.

“The remarks made by the head of the AIDS Commission were very disturbing to members of the LGBT community,” said Kasha Jacqueline, chair of Freedom and Roam Uganda, a lesbian organization, adding, “If they want us to die, let them ask themselves if they wish themselves the same. Excluding us is just going to make the situation worse.”

Uganda’s health minister, Jim Muhwezi, recently said that his country’s gays “don’t deserve a special message” in the fight to prevent the spread of HIV. “They shouldn’t exist, and we hope that they are not there.”

In March 2002, while accepting an award for his nation’s HIV/AIDS prevention programs, Museveni said simply, “We don’t have homosexuals in Uganda,” and on other occasions he has denounced gays as “worse than dogs.” Last year, Human Rights Watch noted, “For years, President Yoweri Museveni’s government routinely threatens and vilifies lesbians and gays, and subjects sexual-rights activists to harassment.”

Police persecution of LGBT Ugandans is widespread, and courts can punish homosexual acts with a life sentence in prison. Even “attempted” homosexuality can draw a jail term of seven years.

AIDS workers in Uganda report that, because all government-sponsored HIV prevention materials, like billboards and leaflets, exclusively feature heterosexual couples, many gays in the underdeveloped and poorly educated country believe that AIDS is not a disease that can affect them and remain unaware the virus can be transmitted by unprotected sex.

A 20-year-old Kampala gay man named Joel recently told the African news website Afrolnews that, “Some boys believe that to sleep with a man is safe because all the billboards around town show heterosexual couples, with messages… Nothing is said about homosexual couples using a condom so they think it is safer to sleep with each other than with a girl.”

The three arrested and their fellow SMUG activists were distributing leaflets and press releases and holding up placards at the HIV Implementers’ Meeting, an annual event co-sponsored by the Bush administration’s President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), as well as by UNAIDS, UNICEF, the World Bank, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The conference was held at a Kampala hotel.

After two days of detention, “all three were eventually released on bail, and face a court hearing on Friday,” June 20, David Kato, SMUG’s crisis officer, told Gay City News by telephone from Kampala.

The SMUG protest and the arrests of its activists received widespread media attention, Kato said, adding that “the government newspaper New Vision denounced us for bringing unwanted attention to immorality from foreign media, saying, ‘Uganda is now on TV only because of these bad people.'”

In the past two and a half years, LGBT Ugandans have been under increasing attack, by both leading government figures and the sensationalist media. A popular daily tabloid newspaper, Red Pepper, led outing campaigns in 2006 and 2007 in which it named more than 100 it said were gay or lesbian, printing descriptions of them, and describing their places of residence and employment. (For more on this, see this reporter’s September 14-20, 2006 article “Uganda Witch Hunt Escalates” and his September 13-19, 2007 article “Uganda’s Anti-Gay Stampede.”)

The gay-baiting media campaign forced many LGBT Ugandans out of their homes, SMUG’s Kato told this reporter: “One guy was told by his landlord to move out because he was a criminal, and many others had to move away from their homes. Some of those who could left the country.”

SMUG co-founder Victor Juliet Mukasa, a transgendered lesbian, earlier this year joined the Africa staff of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which has offices in Cape Town, South Africa, after she fled Uganda in fear of her life. When police raided her home, seized documents, and manhandled and arrested a female friend of hers, Mukasa had the temerity to sue the police for an illegal action and took her case all the way to the nation’s highest court. The lawsuit received significant media attention in the Ugandan press.

Mukasa, who has been on a ten-day visit to Uganda which began this past weekend, told Gay City News by telephone from Kampala, “We know our forefathers knew about homosexuality. It was in all the kingdoms of our forefathers. The homophobia was imported into our culture by colonialism and Christianity, which dehumanized and criminalized us. So we refuse the allegation that homosexuality is incompatible with Uganda’s traditional culture, we don’t believe it.”

Mukasa and other LGBT advocates, however, must fight the widespread practice in Uganda of calling homosexuality “the Western disease.”

Mukasa said that she has found that, as a result of her court case and the recent arrests of SMUG members, “more and more people are coming out, and our LGBT movement has grown. There is new leadership which has come up to replace us, and more and more people are turning up to ask, ‘What can we do?'”

In previous years Uganda’s LGBT community has been riven by factionalism between rival groups, but on this trip home, Mukasa said, “I’ve observed more unity than ever before, just an amazing amount of solidarity and people working together. It makes me proud and gives me hope for the future.”

In Sierra Leonean culture it is often the rape victims not the rapists who are blamed for the attack. Hannah Kargbo, a nurse who counsels abused women in the capital Freetown, explains how prejudice heaps more pain on already vulnerable girls.

Kargbo works at the Rainbo Centre, a rape and gender-based violence counseling and health clinic funded by the International Rescue Committee. More than half the abuse victims treated at the centres are aged between 0 and 15.

“Most of the children that come here were not only raped but also physically assaulted by their parents.

“Parents tend to blame the children, saying they should not have let it happen to them. They don’t take into account the age difference – how is a four year-old child supposed to fight off a 40 year-old man?

“They think that they gave their children everything they need, so why would they go out looking for sex?

“The beatings are serious. They scald the children, shave their heads, and insert chili peppers into the vaginas. They beat them first to get an explanation of what happened, and then again as a punishment.

“Most of the abuse in the 11-15 year-old range is being done by people they know, but the male attackers are usually older – for example 11 year-old girls with 17 year-old boys.

“70 percent of the girls that come in have a sexually transmitted disease. Gonorrhea is common. I recently saw a 14 year-old girl who contracted HIV/AIDS because of rape.

“Most of them had been abused over a long period of time before the attacker was caught.

“Although underage marriage is common in Sierra Leone, most of the cases we get here are unmarried. It is not considered rape if the girl is married.

“If someone is raped we urge their family to go to court, but they will have to wait a year or more for a trial, even longer.

“Often the perpetrator is someone well-known in the community, and he will exert pressure on the family to settle it out of court. If the family refuses, they will be ostracised.”

New guidelines for how magistrates should deal with domestic violence were launched by Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla in Midrand.

Polokwane chief magistrate Belinda Molamu said the purpose of the guidelines was to provide uniformity in the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act of 1998 in magistrate’s courts.

“When we promote uniformity, we promote confidence in the system of justice,” she said.

The guidelines have been set out as a reference manual for magistrates on how to deal with particular sensitivities around these cases.

In processing domestic violence cases, magistrates were advised to obtain a full history of the violence experienced by the victim.

Magistrates could then determine what kind of court action could best protect victims from the level of risk they faced.

Magistrates were also told to regard domestic violence cases with great urgency because of the possibly fatal risks victims might face, if court protection was not obtained.

Magistrates dealing with domestic violence cases were told to make themselves available to process after-hours protection order applications.

Victims should be informed of and offered all the legal avenues open to them to stop the perpetrators of violence.

Counselling should also be offered to them.

Verulam Chief Magistrate Renuka Subban said the guidelines were necessary because magistrates and the victims often came from different social backgrounds.

She said while most domestic violence victims came from impoverished communities and were non-white and female, most magistrates were white men.

They needed to understand the background of the victims.

Mabandla said while she welcomed measures such as the guidelines, more work to stop domestic violence needed to be done.

“What is it that we have to do better in order to address this scourge?”

Mabandla said more research into what caused domestic violence needed to be conducted.

Eight years after a civil war in Sierra Leone that became notorious for the extent of rape and violence committed against civilians, social workers fear that rape is more of a problem in post-conflict, democratic society than it was during the war.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), which runs four “Rainbo Centres” – counselling and treatment clinics for raped and battered women in Sierra Leone – recorded 1,176 attacks on women around the country last year. Its staff say these numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“When we started work just after the war it was to provide medical and psychological counselling to women who had been abused during the war, but the new cases have just not stopped coming,” said Hannah Kargbo, a nurse who treats abused women.

“Some of the perpetrators were children during the war and were exposed to rape and sexual violence then and just carried on doing it,” she said. The highest numbers of cases come from areas where large numbers of ex-combatants are gathered.

“The ministry of health just cannot give it the attention it deserves with [other priorities, including] such high levels of child and maternal mortality,” explained Alan Glasgow, the head of the IRC in Sierra Leone. “They want to, but the resources just aren’t there.”

Even when facilities do exist – like the IRC-run Rainbo Centres – people are very reluctant to come forward and talk about what has happened to them.

“Being raped is stigmatised by society in Sierra Leone,” said Eunice Whenzle, head of the Rainbo Centre in the capital Freetown, who says that even the question of what constitutes a sexual assault is a very complex issue in Sierra Leonean society.

Marital rape is still not considered a crime. It is also still normal for society to blame the victims for what has happened to them, usually for how they dress or comport themselves, social workers say.

Getting a clear statistical picture of the problem is hindered by the country’s still devastated health infrastructure, fractured local government and other humanitarian priorities.

While the number of rapes is unclear, the extent of the problem is acknowledged by officials at all levels as alarming. “Rape is endemic and pervasive,” said one senior UN official, who requested anonymity.

Police officials said most police stations and police sub-offices receive at least one complaint of rape every day.

According to the human rights group Amnesty International (USA), increased rape and domestic violence in post-conflict situations has also been recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

“Studies suggest that domestic violence continues to intensify after conflict and is worse than it was during the conflict,” Amnesty says, urging added attention on protection of women and girls in post-conflict states.

“When states fail to take the basic steps necessary to protect women from domestic violence or allow these crimes to be committed with impunity, they are failing in their obligation to protect women’s rights,” it said in a report on post-conflict violence.

But in Sierra Leone impunity for rapists is still the norm. Of 896 Rainbo Centre clients that sought legal action against their attackers in 2007, just 13 perpetrators received a conviction.

Partly to blame is society’s pressure for silence from the attacked. “The victims think that if other people get to hear about the attack they will be mocked and blamed,” Whenzle said.

Fear of stigmatisation is especially acute among the young girls and teenagers who make up the bulk of rape victims. According to the IRC, between January and December 2007 some 65 percent of the victims it treated were under 15 years old. The youngest client was 2 months old.

“The young ones refuse to go back to school after the attack because they think other children will tease them about it,” explained Whenzle. “Some of the girls completely retract from society, refusing to eat or engage with anyone.”

Even when girls and women do come forward and try to get a legal conviction against their attacker, they face large financial and administrative obstacles to getting the necessary medical exams and certificates, and then an interminable wait for justice.

“The court system is incredibly slow,” said Whenzle at the Rainbo Centre in Freetown. “We try to explain to people that it is nonetheless better to let the justice system run its course, otherwise these crimes will go on and on, but mostly people settle out of court.”

“As a result, rapists go free, and sometimes the same girl is even raped again by the same man.”

Even when victims overcome the social and financial barriers to getting their case heard, the criminal justice system has largely failed to successfully prosecute sex crimes.

“There is no stigma attached to being a rapist in Sierra Leonean society, only to being raped,” Whenzle said.

There is no stigma attached to being a rapist… only to being raped

In some cases, girls are even obliged by their families to marry the man who raped them. “These are mostly uneducated people and their family’s think just giving the girl away is the best thing to do.”

More commonly however, the rapist will offer to give money to the victim’s family as a form of punishment. “Ultimately money becomes more important than the child’s welfare,” Whenzle said.

Amie Kandeh, a gender-based violence expert at the IRC in Freetown, agreed. “There is a total lack of support in society for holding perpetrators accountable,” she said.

“We saw rape and sexual violence used as a tool during the war, and now it is morphing into this culture’s society as something that is understood and even accepted,” said Glasgow, the IRC head.

The President General of the Northwest Fon’s Union, NOWEFU, Fon Isaac Chafah XI of Bangolan, has condemned child trafficking.

The Fon described it as a modern form of slavery that must be eliminated. Fon Chafah made the statement while chairing the launching ceremony of the book “The Socio-Legal Perspective of Child Protection in Cameroon,” in Yaounde June 16.

Dr. Rabiatou Danpullo, varsity don and Director in the Ministry of Social Affairs is the author of the book. The NOWEFU boss said Rabiatou has painted a vivid picture of the agony children go through in child trafficking and prostitution.

He said child trafficking is rampant in the Northwest Province, especially Boyo Division where the author hails from. He called on parents to seek to give their children education in order to shield them against the unfortunate phenomenon.

He described Rabiatou’s book as an encyclopaedia of proposed solutions to all forms of abuse on children. Speaking at the occasion at the British Council, Prof. Ephraim Ngwafor of the Yaounde University II described the book as a piece of well researched work.

He said the author of the book has proven beyond doubt that she is a master of the child protection law. He advised Rabiatou to remain humble.

While reviewing the book, Prof. Wilfred Ndongko, a senior economics lecturer at Yaounde University II, said it projects the situation of vulnerable children. Such children, according to him, grapple with ills like sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, breast ironing and HIV/AIDS.

Also appreciating the book, Dr. Prudence Galega, a Director in the Ministry of Justice, said Rabiatou has identified all categories of vulnerable children with an update on statistical data.

Dr. Galega said child trafficking is a growing phenomenon that has to be prosecuted at every instance. She remarked that although a 2005 law criminalised child trafficking, much still remains to be done in order to scare off its perpetrators.

Besides, she said the book makes concrete proposals as far as civil and criminal laws are concerned. For her part, the author said she was motivated by her passion for children to write the book.

“If we don’t protect the children, there will be no tomorrow. Let’s try to make the world a better place for children to live in,” she appealed. The chief launcher of the book was Johnson Nkwain, a senior translator at the presidency. Abel Akara Ticha of the British High Commission in Yaounde emceed the event.

“The Socio-Legal Perspective of Child Protection in Cameroon” is a 287-page document divided into five chapters.

Several governments and women’s rights groups say forced and arranged marriages are a growing problem in European countries. Istanbul recently hosted one of a series meetings that brings together non-governmental organizations and local governments to examine the issue of people being forced to marry against their will.

A women from southeast Turkey told representatives of leading non-governmental organizations and local governments meeting last week in Istanbul about her forced marriage.

“I got married when I was 27, it was arranged marriage. I only met husband once before we wed, but I had no choice. It was decided by my family and his that this was the man I have to spend the rest of my life, this is how it is for women, marriage is not a question of choice,” she said.

With the backing of the European Union, the Hamburg, Germany, city council initiated a series of meetings across Europe to discuss forced marriages. Dr. Matthias Bartke of Hamburg says hearing about the experiences of women involved and about Turkish women’s rights groups efforts to end forced marriages was an invaluable experience.

“For us it was actually perhaps the most important conference, because in Germany, especially in Hamburg, the Turks are the biggest minority and force marriages often occur among the Turkish community in Hamburg and also as you know the Afghani community,” said Dr. Bartke. “I learned quiet a bit today how they are seen in Turkey.”

While there has not been a Europe-wide study of forced marriages, speakers said their first-hand experiences indicated a growing problem. Local studies in several German cities support such concerns.

German woman’s rights worker Rahel Volz, who represents the group Terres des Femmes, says children of migrants are increasingly opposing traditional arranged marriages and are being coerced into them.

“Many women and girls of the second and third generation of migrants in Germany are emancipating themselves,” said Volz. “They know which rights they have, and the other side the parents do not want to lose their power. This one reason why it is growing, and on the other side because of the very big media presenting this problem there are many more women going to counseling services and starting to resist the will of their parents.”

Many European countries are introducing legislation against forced marriage, but several speakers expressed concern over the lack of effective implementation of new laws.

Britain, which last year set up a Forced Marriage Unit to combat the problem, was held up as a success. The unit has carried out several rescues around the globe of British nationals being forced into marriage.

But Marlen Shenk, of a Swiss anti-forced marriage group, says education is also important

“The children are very important to inform about their rights because they can also work with their parents. Because the children know more about the society in Switzerland for example, so they can explain to their parents, their life works in such way in Switzerland. So you have joined this way of life, for example, in choice of which partner you will marry,” said Shenk.

The majority of reported forced marriages in Europe involve Muslim families, but Rahel Volz says it should not be seen as an Islamic problem.

“Persons affected are from migrant communities from Turkey, but there are also Christian minorities,” added Volz. “It is not a religious problem, it is also a traditional problem and we also have women coming from Greece and south Italy who are affected by forced marriages.”

Although Turkey passed tough laws protecting women’s rights in 2005, Turkish rights groups claim there has been little implementation of them – a charge denied by the government.

The Women for Women rights group also criticized Ankara’s failure to join the European Union’s Daphne project to fight violence against women.

Women for Women representative Pinar Ilkaracan says her group is still battling to get forced marriage recognized as a problem in Turkey.

“It is the first meeting on forced marriages in Turkey. Forced marriages is an issue of the invisible suffering of women, so it has not been on the agenda, but I hope through this awareness now, as it is becoming an issue among emigrant communities in Europe, I hope that will also contribute to raising awareness here. We did research in 14 cities in eastern and southeastern Turkey and found that 52 percent of women were married against their will, so I think the numbers are horrifying,” she said.

Women’s groups in Turkey are trying to get the government to honor its three-year-old commitment to set up women’s shelters in every city and major town. There are at present only 28 shelters.

Pressure from the European Union is seen by Turkish women’s groups as their best chance of a change in the government’s stance towards violence against women.

Nasima Begum is all too aware of the risks of childbirth in Bangladesh. At only 18, she has already lost two babies.

“The first one died because we didn’t know that the mother needed medical check-ups during pregnancy. The second one died because we took Nasima to a private clinic where there were no trained birth attendants,” her husband, Selim Reza, 25, a rickshaw driver, told IRIN.

“This time we were careful. I took her to a locally trained birth attendant every three months during her pregnancy and she had a safe birth,” he said.

According to the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) State of the World’s Children Report 2008, Bangladesh has the worst maternal mortality rate (MMR) in South Asia at 570 per 100,000 live births.

In comparison, the rates in neighbouring India and Pakistan are 450 and 320 respectively, the report states.

According to Bangladesh’s 2007 Demographic and Health Survey, 21,000 mothers die annually of pregnancy and childbirth-related causes, principally because skilled birth attendants account for just 13 percent of all deliveries in Bangladesh, according to government health experts.

The problem is particularly pronounced in rural areas, where more than 75 percent of the country’s 150 million inhabitants live.

“Eighty percent of maternal deaths happen in the countryside,” said Sabera Khatun of the department of gynaecology and obstetrics at the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University in Dhaka. “Medical facilities have not reached the rural areas as extensively as they should.”

Most women die of haemorrhaging, followed by anaemia, hypertensive disorders, obstructed labour and abortion, explained Ferdousi Begum of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

CARE Bangladesh, which has been organising community initiatives to promote maternal and neo-natal health for past 25 years, cites delays in seeking medical assistance and receiving the appropriate healthcare, as well as transportation problems, as contributing factors.

Findings from the 2007 Demographic and Health Survey concluded that just over half of all pregnant women received any institutional health services during childbirth, while significantly fewer received institutional post-natal healthcare.

“Fifty-six percent of women go to hospitals and clinics for ante-natal care, but the rate is only 18 percent for post-natal care,” said Laila Anjumand Banu, health and environment secretary of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), a prominent women’s rights organisation.

Abul Barakat of the Bangladesh Economic Association blames the high maternal mortality rate on poor budgetary allocation by the government.

Health accounts for just 5.9 percent of Bangladesh’s overall national budget, with safe delivery services receiving just a fraction of that.

“Safe delivery services make up only 9.5 percent of the health budget,” Barakat explained.

“A two to three times increase in budget is required for delivery care components,” he said, adding that the number of service providers in emergency obstetric care, particularly doctors and nurses, should be increased.

However, Bangladesh’s per capita health expenditure is just US$4.62, while only 1 percent of gross domestic product goes on health, he said. In addition, coverage is limited. Since 1998, a comprehensive maternal healthcare project has been introduced to only 80 of the country’s 482 sub-districts.

To reduce maternal and infant mortality, according to the Bangladesh Nursing Council, the country needed another 10,000 midwives to boost the 22,000 employed at present.

Moreover, a six-month extended training was required to allow them to work as full-time midwives, stated a recent paper by the Nursing Council.

At present, nurses are only given midwifery training in the last year of their four-year nursing course.

“But these nurses cannot provide their full services to provide special care to mothers and newborns because nurses have to attend to various official and clinical responsibilities that are not related to pregnancy and childbirth,” noted Begum Shamsun Nahar, registrar of the Bangladesh Nursing Council.

“Midwives can play an important role in reducing maternal and infant mortality by ensuring proper services during pregnancy and the delivery period and through ante-natal care,” she said.

To fulfil the Millennium Development Goal of improving maternal health, Bangladesh will need to increase the presence of skilled birth attendants to 50 percent of births and bring down the MMR to 240 by 2015.

The sight of children caring for other children, sometimes just a few years younger than themselves, is not uncommon across Pakistan. Most often, the toddlers or babies lugged around by pre-teen or teenage girls as they go about their chores are younger siblings.

With average family size about five children per household, according to the Lahore-based Family Planning Association of Pakistan (FPAP), and often more, this is not unexpected.

But, in some cases, the babies are the offspring of the girls themselves. Even though child marriage, defined as under the age of 16 for girls and 18 for boys, has been legally limited through the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, and Pakistan in 1990 ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which bars the marriage of under-age girls, such unions between children take place regularly.

Marriages between children aged no more that 12 or 13 – sometimes even younger – are reported from time to time, whereas in other instances girls as young as seven have been “given away” to much older men, often to “settle” a conflict.

Statistics compiled by the Islamabad office of the International Population Council, headquartered in the US, reveal that 58 percent of rural females in Pakistan are married before the age of 20, a large number before reaching the legal age of 16. Exact numbers are not available, due to a lack of research and the tendency among families to lie about age when registering marriages. Indeed, many are not registered at all. In urban areas the ratio is 27 percent. Overall, the council reports, 32 percent of married women in Pakistan aged 20-24 were married before reaching 18.

Of the provinces, Sindh, in the south, has the highest percentage of early marriages among females, while the Punjab, the most developed, has the lowest.

“The doctor was angry with me when I took my pregnant daughter to her, because she was aged only 16, but it is the custom in our family for girls to be wed by the time they are 15 or 16, and I plan to ensure my younger daughters are also married early,” said Tasneem Bibi, 40, from the Khairpur area of Sindh, about 350km north of the port city of Karachi.

She is unconvinced by warnings from medical experts about the risks to health posed by pregnancies at a young age, saying: “I was married at 13 and had my first child at 14.”

Sometimes child marriages are not the result of an agreement between families, but the result of a ruling by a tribal council, most often to settle a feud or decide a dispute. Such a ruling was delivered late in May by a “jirga” (gathering of tribal elders) in the village of Chach, along Sindh’s western border with the province of Balochistan.

The gathering decided that 15 girls, aged between three and 10 years, from the Chakrani tribe, would be married to men from the rival Qalandari tribe to settle an eight-year-old feud.

The feud arose allegedly over a dog owned by the Chakrani tribe biting a donkey that belonged to a Qalandari. So far, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which has conducted an inquiry into the matter, at least 20 lives have been lost in the killings and counter-killings ignited by the incident. The Chakrani tribe has not yet handed over the girls.

“It is terrible that such things happen even now in our society and it is worse still that the marriage of small girls is used to settle these matters. This is barbaric,” said Iqbal Haider, a former senator and now co-chairperson of HRCP.

He also warned that “the girls need to be rescued as they are at risk” and demanded that “those involved should be jailed, including the parents of the girls”.

The Sindh and federal governments have been approached to intervene in the matter but have not yet announced action.

HRCP has demanded the provincial government do so without further delay.

The holding of jirgas and handing-over of girls by them as “compensation” has been declared illegal by courts in Sindh and other provinces. Yet, such gatherings continue to be held and make decisions that determine the future of many girls.

Outside the realm of jirgas, however, child marriages remain a fact of life in Pakistan. Cases of poverty-stricken parents selling pre-teen or teenage daughters have been reported in the local media and other instances of girls given away as compensation have also occurred.

Look after the women in your lives and protect them from being abused, the MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Bheki Cele, urged men around the world on Wednesday.

“When young men die, they are buried. But young women die alive. They are raped, forced to become the victims of HIV and Aids and they are trained to use drugs by their boyfriends who abuse them,” he told the International Youth Crime Prevention and Cities Summit at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban.

His call to all the men at the four-day conference to “rise up and save the young women they know” (their sisters and their girlfriends) from abuse, was met with thunderous applause. Charging them to be the “front-line protectors,” he said that when women saw them, they would feel safe.

The conference is being attended by hundreds of delegates from around the globe.

“Don’t force them to have any unwanted sexual activity, don’t give them drugs or alcohol, don’t make them slaves and dependent on you because you economically abuse them,” Cele said.

A background paper given to delegates told that “302 000 rapes were endured by young girls under the age of 18 in South Africa in the 2005/2006 reporting year – or rather of those reported to the police. That statistic can be added to the 1 075 reports of murder of children, 20 879 reports of assault and 4 725 reports of indecent assaults against children that the South African Police Service received”.

Yasmin Bacus, the head of the department of community safety and liaison, told delegates that Cele’s ideal South Africa was where a young woman could walk alone at 2am after coming out of a nightclub without fear of being attacked by criminals.

Cele, whose department is hosting the conference that is supported by the United Nations, also said it was a “scary” known fact that young black men were dying as a result of crime.

“There are two places where young black men can be found: in prison and in cemeteries.”

Westville Prison, which was supposed to house 6 000 prisoners, had 12 000 “and I can assure you that 11 000 of them are males and young”, he said.

“This is a war against ourselves. People are being killed, not by lions, but by other young black males. And there are better wars that we should be fighting,” he said, citing HIV and Aids, global warming, poverty and hunger.

He agreed with other speakers that young people were often victims of crime.

“Let’s save the youth, let’s find the answers,” he said, hoping that the summit would come up with solutions. Delegates plan to come up with a youth protocol on crime prevention by the end of the week.

Quebec accounts for almost half the children with regulated childcare.

Fact: the vast majority of Canadian moms have a job outside of home. To be exact, 65 percent of mothers of children under three years old work outside the home — 75 percent of mothers of pre-school kids (under five years old) are in the paid workforce.

Fact: Only 16 percent of children in Canada have access to a regulated childcare space. Almost half of those spaces, 45 percent, are in Quebec, which is the only jurisdiction in Canada where a decent effort is made to serve working families with young children.

Unions, women’s groups and childcare advocates are using June — report card season — to grade our governments on their work on childcare.

Somewhere, somehow, the care of young children, their learning opportunities and the quality of life of working parents with young children do not rate high in the priorities list of our federal government and of most of the other provincial governments.

This is why, this month, women from coast to coast to coast are gathering to let their governments know that this is not good enough. Through the Canadian Labour Congress’ campaign for women’s economic equality, unions, women’s groups and child care advocates are using June — report card season — to grade our governments on their work on child care.

In its report card, the federal government gets a failing grade for its lack of action on providing working parents with more access to affordable, quality childcare spaces.

At a news conference on Parliament Hill, the Canadian Labour Congress also released a full set of report cards grading the provinces on their overall performance when it comes to delivering the childcare services working families need.

Based on public data provided by or through governments, the report cards measure progress (or lack thereof) in three areas:
* affordability, measured by what it costs parents to access childcare services,
* quality, measured by the salaries paid to childcare staff, and
* accessibility, measured by the creation of new public childcare spaces.

Manitoba scored the highest mark, with a grade of B+ while the lowest mark, a D-, was awarded to British Columbia.

Quebec was not included in the Canadian Labour Congress survey because of that province’s advanced childcare and early learning services. With just 22 percent of Canada’s children, Quebec accounts for 45 percent of the country’s total regulated childcare spaces and 78 percent of the total increase in public funding since 2001. Including it in the survey would be like comparing scrambled eggs to quiche.

The Canadian Labour Congress is the largest democratic and popular organization in Canada with over three million members. The Canadian Labour Congress brings together Canada’s national and international unions, the provincial and territorial federations of labour and 136 district labour councils.

Decriminalisation and taxing of prostitution could bring an estimated $3 billion a year into the government’s coffers, a senior health ministry official suggested yesterday.

Dr Kevin Harvey, senior medical officer in charge of the health ministry’s National HIV/STI Programme said regulating sex workers would also mean that the country would no longer have to look to external funding agencies to finance that programme.

“We need to have some regulation for this kind of grouping. I am not saying that we must go and legalise it, but we must decriminalise it and regulate commercial sex work in order to have greater reach,” Harvey said in an address at the launch of the 2008 Knowledge, Attitude, Belief and Practices (KABP) survey.

His suggestion mirrored that of his boss, Professor Peter Figueroa, head of epidemiology and AIDS in the ministry who four years ago argued that decriminalisation of prostitution would help to provide them with greater access to health services, thereby helping to restrict the spread of the deadly Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

A year after Figueroa’s call, the Human Resource and Social Development Committee of Parliament recommended a debate on homosexuality and prostitution, as one of 31 suggestions to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.

But Dr Harvey went further yesterday to call for a tax on commercial sex workers, the ministry’s preferred name for prostitutes, and he calculated that the treasury could pull in close to $3 billion a year from the tax.

Said Harvey: “Let’s say we estimate that we have about 10,000 CSWs (commercial sex workers) in Jamaica and let’s say they have two episodes of commercial sex per week and let’s say each episode costs about $5,000. So they are earning $10,000 a week. The average earning per CSW would be about $520,000 per year. the total annual earning for the population would be $5 billion.

“If we estimate five episodes per week, which is more likely – the UNAIDS estimate seven to 10 episodes per week – the earning is $13 billion per year and if we do 10 episodes per week it is $26 billion. Twenty-five per cent of that is $2.5 billion. The entire budget for the HIV programme is $1 billion for one year. This could fund twice over the entire HIV programme for Jamaica and, not only that, it would provide us with an opportunity to reach these persons providing necessary intervention that are required to reduce their risk of transmission.”

Dr Harvey also pointed out that the earnings from the CSWs could also be used to provide them with access to condom skills in order to foster risk reduction.

“We could have access to providing linkages with our training education programme and our rehabilitation programme,” he said, adding that some CSWs were also drug addicts.

CSWs are among the persons most at risk of contracting the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus that frequently leads to AIDS. While there is no data indicating the number of prostitutes in Jamaica, figures from the health ministry indicated a nine per cent HIV prevalence in that group.

In its five-year strategic plan, the ministry proposes to strengthen prevention efforts for sex workers and others engaging in transactional sex. But the plan also complained that “there is little support from political and other high level leaders for messages of intervention dealing with risk reduction and increased access to treatment and care targeted at certain at risk groups, among them sexually active minors, men who have sex with men, incarcerated men, commercial sex workers and those in places where other forms of transactional sex are practised”.

“This translates to a political environment that offers minimal support for any policy position or law reform seeking to increase access to condom use and treatment for such at risk groups,” the notes to the plan said.

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.

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 is the only one among them to 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.

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.”

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 mothers proud to see their daughters suffer in their marriages, 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.”

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.

Domestic violence is a serious, yet underreported problem in Burundi. Activists and politicians say traditional practices that justify violence, attitudes that discourage women from speaking out, and women’s limited economic options often keep them in abusive situations. Some Burundians are agitating for changes in the law and cultural attitudes to protect women against such violence and give them options for a better life. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited the central African nation and filed this report for VOA.

Francine Nijimbere recalls the night she woke up to find her arms being hacked off her body.

The man wielding the machete was her husband, enraged that she had given birth to a girl, her daughter Crista Bella.

Crippled, she is now almost helpless.

As for her husband, he was imprisoned for three years, then released, and then re-incarcerated again following a public campaign and outcry.

Nijimbere says, “When he was out of jail for the first time, he said he wished he could have cut off my head, not just my arms. He said he was returning to jail because of me.”

Because of the severity and high-profile nature of her case, at least Nijimbere’s husband is behind bars – for now. Most perpetrators of domestic violence serve little or no jail time.

Marie-Christine Ntagwirumugara is a Member of Parliament and president of the Association of Catholic Women Jurists.

“There are no laws on domestic violence,” Ntagwirumugara said. “If a woman has been beaten badly by her husband, one will ask her to explain what happened. If you press her to explain, she will retract her complaint because women are unwilling to say what happens in the house.”

Violence against women is a growing problem in Burundi, the tiny central African country that is just emerging from more than a decade of civil war.

Ntagwirumugara says there are no official statistics on the incidence of domestic violence. Yet according to a survey conducted by her organization, one out of every three women in the capital Bujumbura is being beaten at home.

Activists say domestic violence is viewed as normal in Burundi. Some traditional practices even encourage wife beating.

Women are afraid to speak out when it does occur for fear of reprisals, and the culture prohibits them from expressing their views. Again,

Mireille Niyonzima heads a women’s rights group.

“It is very difficult here in Burundi to talk about women’s rights,” Niyonzima said. “According to customs, women do not have rights in many areas. When someone talks about women’s rights, it is somehow a revolt. In our culture, a woman has rights within the house. In the past, she could not go to school or do other things except in the house. Now she can work or go to school but still she has no right to decide anything.”

Because their options are so limited, activists say most women have no choice but to put up with whatever ill treatment they receive at the hands of their partners.

Women’s rights groups are lobbying Burundi’s parliament to change the law to protect women against domestic and sexual violence.

They also are helping women to learn how to earn their own income, so they can become economically self-sufficient.

Self-help groups have been formed by and for women in Burundi. Some 500 so-called solidarity groups are now functioning across the country under the auspices of the humanitarian organization, CARE. Here, women gather weekly not only to share their stories and support each other, but also to pool their savings to offer members revolving loans.

With the loan she received from her solidarity group, 28-year-old Donate Nizigiyimana was able to start a small business selling fruits and vegetables.

Before this, Nizigiyimana and her four children often went hungry because her husband spent the family income on alcohol, and would beat her when she had no food to cook for him.

“Before the group, my life was so bad, but now things are going well,” Nizigiyimana said. “Before, I could not even talk about my life but after talking to the group members, I am calm and at ease. Women’s associations are important in Burundi because women can sit together and share their problems with one another and try to find solutions together.”

She urges women facing domestic violence to get out of the house, join groups, and tell their stories to others to get the support they need to change their lives.