Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SENEGAL: Wedding Night Death Sparks Debate on Domestic Violence

Abdou Faye

DAKAR, Oct 1 2003 (IPS) - Dieynaba Hamady Sow, 12, died on May 31 from haemorrhaging caused by sexual intercourse on her wedding night after she was forced to marry her 35-year-old cousin.

Sow died six days after her marriage to Moussa Coulibaly in Matam, a town 720 kilometres north of the Senegalese capital, Dakar. The only punishment he received was a two-month prison sentence.

The case shocked the nation, where women are increasingly becoming victims of domestic violence. One of the groups most concerned about the growing cases of domestic violence in Senegal is the African Encounter for Human Rights. It has expressed its “profound concern about the practice of early marriage”, which, it says “constitutes an intolerable blow to the fundamental rights of the girl child”. Violence toward women is defined as an act, committed either in public or private, which leads to the physical, sexual or psychological traumatisation or suffering of the victim.

According to a survey of 257 people in Kaolack, 196 kilometres east of the capital, and in Dakar in May 2000, the Canadian Centre for Study and International Cooperation found that more than half (153 of those interviewed ) had been the victims of at least one form of violence. The Committee Against Violence Toward Women, based in Dakar, also recorded 127 cases of violence, 109 of which were domestic, between Jan 2000 and Dec. 2001. Those figures included six cases of rape and five of forced marriage.

In Sep. 2001, just before meeting with President Abdoulaye Wade in Dakar, a group of women marched to the Republican Palace to protest against the growing cases of domestic violence in Senegal.

The group was protesting the deaths of Aby Sall and Fatou Sow, both of whom were murdered by their husbands. Sall was repeatedly stabbed with a pair of scissors in Thies, a town 70 kilometres from Dakar, while Sow was hacked to death with a machete in Mbacke, a town 200 kilometres from the Senegalese capital.

After the demonstration, Wade set up an agency to monitor domestic violence, naming as its head Mame Bassine Niang, former president of the National Human Rights Organisation.

The first protest march against domestic violence in Senegal was organised in Kaolack in 1992 by the Senegalese Women’s Advocacy Association (APROFES) following the death of Diocky Niasse, who was fatally beaten by her husband.

”Violence against women is a worrying phenomenon all over Senegal. It is not caused by the so-called docility of women, but by a patriarchal system which gives too much power to men,” said sociologist Youssouf Mbargane Guisse.

“Violent behaviour toward women is legitimised, even encouraged by families and society. This phenomenon is not about intellect or literacy. The socio-cultural environment makes it an everyday occurrence,” he explained.

The majority of women are unaware that the penalty for violence against them, according to Senegalese law, is a five to 10-year prison term. In cases where a woman is mutilated, that penalty is increased from 10 to 20 years, and for spousal murder, one could receive life imprisonment.

Senegal’s 2001 constitution bans forced marriage at an early age, which is considered to be a violation of individual liberty and one of the worst forms of violence against women.

Women’s groups are encouraging victims of domestic violence to come forward and take their case to court.

“Some women, who are victims of domestic violence, often vow to go to court, but once they appear before the judge, they chicken out, claiming that their problem had been amicably resolved at home. They are afraid what others may think of them when they expose their private lives in public,” said Ndeye Aissatou Faye of the Siggil Jiggen Network of Women’s Groups.

Siggil Jiggen means “giving women back their dignity” in Wolof – the most widely spoken Senegalese language.

Besides being ignorance about legal provisions, most women in Senegal thread with care when taking legal action against their husbands, the main bread winner in the family.

Other influences, such as traditional beliefs and customs, as well as religion – around 90 percent of Senegal’s population is Muslim – also contribute to the increase in domestic violence.

In a paper presented at a workshop on “The Status of Women in Islam” in Dakar recently, Seydou Diouf, a law professor, said “Islamic law authorises men to beat their wives (Verse 34 of the Sura). But, Diouf quickly noted that: “this corporal punishment is supposed to be very mild and should only be used as the last resort”.

Father Francis of the Parish of Saint-Dominique in Senegal said “all forms of violence are prohibited in the Catholic Church”.

”A person who is beaten is morally and psychologically dead. Men and women complement each other in marriage. The only solution is dialogue,” he argued.

Sociologist Guisse agreed. “The main cause (of violence) lies in the negative attitude of men who have been brought up to believe that they are superior to women,” he said.

Women’s groups say they have succeeded in getting some victims of domestic violence to come out of the shadows.

”The women of Senegal are experiencing neither more nor less violence than before. What’s different now is that people are talking about it,” said Sarr, the APROFES president. “Nowadays, there is plenty of media coverage on domestic violence”.

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