Jeneba Lansana is only 37 years old but wears the exhausted look of a much older woman. The first time I met her was at the Amnesty International office in Freetown last week, the day after the Premier News paper broke her story. A victim of domestic violence and neglect, she had suffered months of abuse at the hands of her husband, a prominent city lawyer and his brother. Despite her complaints the police had neglected to draw up a report or investigate the issue further. But this is common in Sierra Leone; Jeneba is unique because as a last resort she brought her case to the media.
One of the ongoing struggles here is between official law and social customs. So while domestic violence is legally a crime, society looks the other way when a man beats his wife. Jeneba's move to speak to the press has not gone down well with her family. They had repeatedly pleaded with her to try and resolve things internally, even though they knew it meant perpetuating the cycle of violence.
In 2007, the Government passed the crucial Domestic Violence Act criminalizing what had previously been considered a part of married life. According to official figures, 67 per cent of women in Sierra Leone suffer some form of violence at home and in the provinces outside Freetown few are aware of their legal rights. A report by Amnesty International says that in the rural parts of Sierra Leone where 80 per cent of the population lives, village chiefs still don't recognize domestic violence as an offence.
Since the act came into force, about 3,000 complaints have been filed with the Family Support Unit of the police in Freetown. Often, as in Jeneba's case, the police don't take things seriously, especially when a supposedly upstanding citizen is being accused.
The second time I met Jeneba was at the High Court when, under pressure from the media, her case had finally been brought before a judge. She looked frightened and nervous, dressed in the one nice outfit that her husband had not seized. The only people willing to take her case were a group of women lawyers who called themselves, well, LAWYERS (Legal Assistance for Women Yearning for Equality, Rights and Social Justice). The downside is that this will invariably make it about men vs. women's issues.
At different times NGOs and universities conduct training sessions with journalists, civil society and rural communities. But this doesn't seem to be influencing social thought processes. I had a chat with Easmon Ngakui, the secretary general of the Sierra Leone Bar Association, about Jeneba's case and he seemed convinced that domestic violence was an 'internal issue' and that it was 'the African way'. He vouched for Lansana being a well respected lawyer and asserted that the association would not interfere in a private matter. I thought that one of their own being accused in court would be embarrassing, but Ngakui went so far as to say that Jeneba was probably blowing things out of proportion. 'Laws in Sierra Leone are adopted without taking into account the local context,' he said.
Will Jeneba get justice in a country that refuses to recognise her right to live with dignity? Or where guardians of the law abuse it with impunity? She had the courage to speak out, but there are still so many that neither the law nor the media can reach.