By Tabora Bojang
Like other countries in the sub-region, violence against women and children in The Gambia has been one of the most prominent human rights violations.
“In the status quo, 1 in 4 women aged 15-49 years will become a victim of sexual and gender-based violence and 26% of ever-married women have experienced physical, sexual and emotional violence by their husbands or intimate partners. About 24% of ever-married women have physical injuries due to intimate partner violence. The occurrence of GBV in some communities in The Gambia has been ‘normalized’ to the extent that 40% of women believe it is acceptable for their partner(s) to hit them,” according to UNFPA.
According to a survey conducted by the Network Against Gender Based Violence (NGBV), an NGO advocating against gender-based violence in The Gambia, violence against women and children has “escalated alarmingly” during the global pandemic.
This is despite a low turnout of cases registered at 5857; with a death toll of 173 since the confirmation of the first case in March 2020.
The Networks’ programme coordinator, Fallou Sowe, disclosed that 522 women and children have experienced some form of sexual and gender based violence according to respondent statistics.
Out of these include 243 sexual violence cases including rape and 116 cases committed against children, with the West Coast and the Greater Banjul Area topping with 151 of cases at 77 percent.
“This is alarming” Sowe warned. “Because it means lot of our children have been exposed to sexual violence in the pandemic.
Matilda Johnson, communications lead at Paradise Foundation, explained that: “In the beginning of the lockdown when everyone was inside, there was an escalation of what was already a worrying trend. We saw a lot of gender-based violence and these include domestic violence cases, sexual violence, financial violence and other forms.”
The foundation rolled out an initiative dubbed: “Tahawou-Jigueen” working with women who have been subjected to sexual violence during the pandemic, while offering them with counselling, psychological support and connecting them to emergency and other social services.
It also partnered with the government and other organisations in launching a toll-free hotline for reporting and responding to cases.
The foundation’s project coordinator, Muhammed Jah, disclosed that 3847 calls were received mainly relating to domestic violence.
“Majority of the victims are women. We also have special trained operators who would receive the calls and process the complaints. We offer them counselling and psychological first aid.
According to Mr. Jah, the toll-free hotline has had a huge impact on survivors who are breaking away from the perennial culture of silence, because “the issue of gender-based violence is either normalised or accepted at homes; so people don’t talk about it in this country.”
In a report released by the UNFPA office on Domestic and Gender Based Violence in The Gambia during Covid- 19, informants interviewed mentioned that frustration and anxiety surrounding loss of jobs have essentially caused panic, fear and anger among men, who are supposed to be the breadwinners for their homes.
“Key informants revealed that pre-existing gender-related narratives have been aggravated due to lockdown measures put in place to mitigate the spread of infections. In The Gambia, where women make up the majority of the informal sector, an estimated 52,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs in both formal and informal sectors. The situation is even worse in rural areas where more than 69% of people live below the poverty line. This economic loss has an impact on the increased risks of GBV.”
Cultural, religious barriers
It is observed that violence against women is mainly underreported due to the reasons such as “stigma, shame, cultural and religious misconceptions” which have made the reporting of abuse and violence harder.
Oumie Mbye, gender-based violence coordinator at the Paradise Foundation, described the excesses of such cultural barriers as having given rise to a tendency of which “some men felt women have no liberty over their own bodies and even over their own lives.”
Rohey Bittaye-Darboe, the permanent secretary, Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, said the cultural norms mainly tend families to settle for out of court arrangement before cases of gender violence would reach the court.
Muhammed Jah, the project coordinator of Paradise Foundation, observed that the country “being a Muslim majority, some people interpret religion to mean men are responsible [carers]of women and therefore they have the right to treat women like their subjects.”
Although The Gambia has ratified and domesticated several international conventions towards eliminating all forms of violence against women and also enacted local laws including The Children Act, he pointed out.
The police have also been blamed for what many described “ineffective prosecution” of criminal cases involving sexual violence offences.
Superintendent Lamin Njie, the police spokesperson explained that a variety of reasons including constraints in evidence gathering, cultural norms and low capacity among police officers are some of the reasons hindering effective prosecution of cases related to Gender-Based Violence.
He said the police were cognisant of the rising cases of gender violence which promoted its high command to seek partnership with other institutions to help in raising awareness, and increase the capacity of officers in handling cases.
“The issues affecting the police in the swift prosecution or investigation of cases are that; evidential materials are mostly tampered at the crime scene from the level of the community because of customary belief about rape cases.”
He cited mobility gaps at police stations, delays in reporting, reluctance on the side of the community members to testify in courts, medical examination delays/constraints, lack of awareness among community members as major factors hindering the police.
He also stated that the police have responded in rolling out a project funded by the Paradise Foundation and UNFPA which stepped up in raising awareness in the communities, building the capacity of law enforcement officers and enhancing mobility.
“As a government, we know that GBV will be on the increase during Covid-19 because the lockdown measures mean perpetrators and victims would be spending more time together,” permanent secretary at the Ministry of Women Children and Social Welfare, Rohey-Bittaye Darboe stated.
She said the government responded with these in rolling out supportive mechanisms and awareness raising for victims of gender-based violence, households with children and persons physically challenged.
“We also conducted advocacy and awareness campaigns on a wider reach with support of our women councilors. We have also partnered with our donors to rehabilitate an edifice at the Children Centre in Bakoteh that would be used for counselling and with rooms to provide temporary accommodation for victims.
Mrs. Bittaye- Darboe disclosed that the government plans to establish a special court on gender-based violence to deal with the dispensation of justice in cases relating to gender crime.
The assistant programme officer at the Paradise Foundation, Fatoumatta Joof, recommends the need for sustained sensitisations and outreach programmes in encouraging survivors to speak in breaking the silence.
Oumie Mbaye called for attitudinal change in ending the cycle of domestic violence from the home.
“We need to continue with more awareness and also improve on the way we raise our children because the girl child is differently raised to the male counterpart who would turn to become perpetrators.”
Activist and volunteer Abigaelle Normand observed that crucial steps must be taken to “crush the taboos” which inform the normalisation of violence against women and girls.
“The government should place punitive measures and ensure stringent punishments are meted on perpetrators. The laws are here but the limited enforcement continue to avail windows to perpetrators to sneak” Muhammed Jah recommends.
This story is supported by Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) Canada.