VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
Changing Times - Ann Jones in Liberia
January 28, 2008 by The IRC
|Men feel free to assault women in public, with complete impunity. A Global Crescendo photographer caught this man beating his pregnant wife. The man in the background looking on appears to be laughing. Photo: Kebeh Jallah|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with women's advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Ann is blogging the year-long project from West Africa. If you're just joining us, you can read her first series of posts from Cote d'Ivoire here.
The story continues in Liberia, where Ann is posting updates and photos on Mondays and Thursdays into February.
Voinjama, Liberia I board an IRC vehicle and catch a colleague, a Liberian man, in the middle of a story about his escape from Lofa County during the Charles Taylor war.
“So we got over the border, and we’re standing in the street, and a Guinea man steps on this Liberian lady’s foot.”
The other Liberian men in the car laugh in anticipation. They can see trouble coming.
“So this Guinea man stands there. He don’t know he’s standing on the Liberian lady’s foot. So this lady tries to get her foot out from under the man’s boot, and she gives him a little bitty shove. To call his attention to her foot, which is in a sorry condition.”
“Oh oh!” says a listener, laughing.
“So this Guinea man turns around and smashes her in the face—Boom!—like that, with his fist, and she falls down, and the blood comes spouting out her nose. So then we all fight, and then the police come, and they was going to arrest us, but finally they let us go. They said we was Liberians and didn’t know better than to fight.”
“Hee, hee, hee!”
This story, which seems so hilarious to Liberian men, has nothing really to do with the Liberian lady or her sorry foot. This is a story about Liberian men whose default response to any problem is violence—men who know that about themselves and laugh about it.
Liberian women, on the other hand, are supposed to blame themselves when men target them. Don’t men always tell them it’s their fault? It gets to be a habit. I sit with Women’s Action Groups and hear women describe beatings, rape, public humiliation. I hear them struggle to explain the violence. But now they begin to question the old excuses.
I’ve already told you about the entrepreneurial women of Logantown Women’s Development Association, doing business—selling fried cookies or water or peanuts—so their husbands won’t beat them for being “idle.” (See Posting #5) Some Logantown members, including Patience, the photographer, say that since they went into business their husbands have changed; they don’t beat them anymore, now that they’re making money. But other women who work just as hard, sell just as much stuff, and make just as much money say their husbands beat them just the same. Somebody says maybe women’s “idleness” is not the cause of violence after all.
Many women say men beat women because women are uneducated. Men have to beat women to get them to do what’s “right.” This, of course, is how men explain it.
At a village women’s center, women taking an evening literacy class work by the light of kerosene lamps. Photo: Kebeh Jallah It’s one reason women want education: to relieve men of the duty of beating them. Annie, a photographer from Voinjama, says that she enrolled in a literacy course for this reason, but every day her husband ripped the latest exercise from her notebook and used it as toilet paper. Kebeh, a photographer from Dougoumai, says that when she disobeyed her husband’s order to give up her literacy class, he got out his gun—there are plenty left over from the wars—and tried to kill her. Annie and Kebeh reach the same conclusion. Kebeh says, “He doesn’t want me to be educated.” Annie says, “He’d rather hit me.”At a meeting in Chocolate City, Montserrado County, a sharp old woman named Sarah says that men beat women for refusing to have sex. “They say it’s our duty to let them ‘pleasure themselves’ whenever they want,” she says. “If you don’t want to, they beat you until you give up. They think we are machines for their use.” The only traditional recourse a woman has, besides “giving up” is to ask a close male relative to convene a family meeting to settle her complaint. The husband can then invite his family to back him up. Most of these family adjudications—or “home settlements”— find fault in the woman and advise her to change her behavior. Some require the husband to apologize—and the wife to accept the apology. By tradition, that’s the worst thing that can happen to a man who beats his wife. He might have to say, “Sorry.”
Even making money, like this successful fish saleswoman in the Voinjama market, may be no protection from a husband’s violence. Photo: Krubor ZeyzeyNow, under new family laws, a woman can report a battering husband to police or to the court. What happens then varies from place to place. In Dougoumai, women tell me the police won’t take a wife beater to court unless the woman is badly injured or at least bleeding. Then the court might send the case back to the family for “home settlement.” Or the magistrate might offer to hear the case in exchange for the sexual services of the bleeding wife. He’s notorious for it. The Women’s Action Group of Dougoumai wrote a letter to their senator, asking that the corrupt magistrate be replaced. If the senator doesn’t answer soon, they plan to write to President Sirleaf herself. Agnes, the GBV social worker at Dougoumai says, “If a woman speaks up to her husband, the violence can start right there.” “You don’t even have to be speaking up,” says another woman. “Those men beat on us just because we be women. That’s what it means, this ‘gender based violence.’” “Yeah,” says another woman. “They been doing it way too long.”
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