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RIGHTS-BENIN: Support for Women Facing Violence

Esther Tola

COTONOU, Mar 28 2009 (IPS) - Judges and gynaecologists in Benin have undergone training on the interpretation of forensic evidence in cases of violence against women, as well as in investigative procedures when dealing with rape cases.

The training took place in Cotonou, the country’s economic capital, at an international conference held Mar. 16 to 19 as part of the Women’s Justice and Empowerment Initiative, a U.S. government-funded programme to strengthen awareness of gender-based violence and prosecution of perpetrators in four African countries.

In Benin, this initiative is being carried out by Care International and its Empower project, working to enhance the ability of local and national bodies to address the needs of women affected by violence.

Gender-based violence widespread

A survey conducted in Benin in early 2008 by Care International looked at six categories of gender-based violence, including verbal and psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, harmful traditional practices and economic violence.

The survey found that the experience of violence was most common amongst poorly-educated rural women aged 21 and older. Girl children from poor families between the ages of 10 and 14 were also badly affected- again particularly if they were denied access to school.

“Our findings on the ground show that violence and rape are daily realities,” says Jéronime Houngbo, director of the Empower project. “There are children under age three who are raped by people aged between 40 and 50 years.”

The extent of violence is startling: fully 86 percent of respondents reported verbal and psychological abuse; physical abuse was reported by 76 percent of those surveyed. Forty-seven percent reported sexual abuse and 44 percent had experienced violence in connection with traditional practices.

Houngbo said that where charges are laid against a perpetrator of violence, the evidence provided by the plaintiff is frequently deemed insufficient by the police; hence the need to present a more comprehensive medical record.

“What is being done by the U.S. Justice Department in partnership with Benin’s ministries of Justice and Defence and Interior, aims to improve investigation and prosecution techniques used in cases of violence against women,” she said.

According to Dan Duddis, conference facilitator and legal counsel to the U.S. embassy in Benin, police officers and judges should have access to all the necessary modern and scientific tools they might need in order to properly conduct an investigation.

During the conference, a doctor made a presentation on how to examine and investigate a case of rape. The presentation targeted gynaecologists and aimed to teach them how to give the information necessary to prove rape, thus enabling police and the judiciary to prosecute.

Legal reforms needed

“Our laws have not followed the development of Beninese society. There are provisions which exist to curb unacceptable behaviour, contained in a code dating back to 1877,” says Wabi Obadimedji, an anti-violence and gender specialist in the Empower project.

“There is no law specifically punishing those who harm women. Existing laws only punish those guilty of assaulting a Beninese citizen. It is true some effort is being made – there are laws on harassment and on the displacement of minors for example – but there is no focus on women in particular, ” adds Obadimedji.

The interpretation of forensic evidence in cases of violence against women as well as the creation of a body of gynaecologists specially trained in the examination and investigation of cases of rape, is only one component of the Initiative for the Justice and Empowerment of Women.

The other components are the sensitisation of Beninese people to the rights of women, support for women victims of violence as identified by ‘Empower’, as well as the training of officers and police to help to address such violence.

Three other African countries are benefitting from this program, being Kenya, Zambia and South Africa.

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