Can I take my wife to court for domestic abuse if she refuses to sleep with me? The question came from a man at a community gathering in Port Loko, in northern Sierra Leone. At the receiving end was a friend who recently travelled to the provinces with a team from The Special Court for Sierra Leone to educate people about the three gender acts. The results were somewhat comical but also tragic, exposing how little people know or care about the law.
The gender acts, the Domestic Violence Act, the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act and the Devolution of Estates Act were passed in 2007 but so far implementation and awareness is lacking. The Special Court team found that this is especially true of The Domestic Violence Act, which is less understood than the other two. A few posts back I wrote about Jeneba Lansana, a woman in Freetown whose husband, a prominent city-based lawyer, had been beating her up. This post offers snapshots from rural Sierra Leone of how the Act coexists uneasily with cultural norms.
In the interiors there is a perception that this law was designed to destroy the traditional family structure. Cultural norms prescribe that marital squabbles are personal and that the state should not interfere. One of the problems in the provinces is that the police play second fiddle to local chiefs, who are always the first point of contact in family matters. Disputes are usually settled through internal mediation rather than police action. In Moyamba, southern Sierra Leone, the Special Court team found that the police were blissfully unaware of the Domestic Violence Act. Even in places where they know the law, officers are afraid of stepping on the chief's toes.
It seems that the law has been subjected to informal social amendments. One of my co-workers recently confided that he was going to throw his wife out of the house because she had failed to give birth to a child. He believed that in this case he was justified. In Port Loko my friend also found that if a man came home drunk and then assaulted his wife, this was forgivable because he was under the influence.
The Special Court group concluded that men and women are equally sceptical about what exactly they can use the Act for. A recurring question that women in the provinces ask is: Once I've gone to the police, how can I go back home to my husband? The most crippling deterrent is their financial dependence. The other obstacle is the social stigma of divorce.
Consensus is that the Government has done little to popularize these laws. Most sensitization workshops are conducted by NGOs with few follow-ups. Outside of Freetown men still don't understand that the law can protect them from abusive women. A group of army wives recently approached one of my reporters to ask if soldiers could be prosecuted for domestic violence. My personal favourite is a question my friend was asked by a group of women on her trip. Could they use the law if their husbands were bad in bed? Like I said in the beginning, tragic and comic all at once.