International Rescue Committee (IRC)

“Where there is violence, a house is not a home”

Journalist and International Rescue Committee (IRC) Overseer Susan Dentzer is visiting Liberia and Sierra Leone this week as a member of the IRC Commission on Domestic Violence.  Dentzer is the editor-in-chief of Health Affairs and an on-air health policy analyst for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. 

MONROVIA, Liberia - March 12, 2012  The IRC slogan is “From Harm to Home.“  That phrase reflects our organization’s commitment to protecting people from conflict or natural disasters, and to helping them return eventually to their countries of origin or to new lives in the United States.  
 
But what happens when “home” is the least safe place for a person to be  — and, especially, the least safe place for a woman, a wife, a girlfriend or a mother? 
 
The IRC Commission on Domestic Violence came up headlong against this question today, as we began our eight-day visit to Liberia and Sierra Leone in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.  Six out of every 10 women who seek assistance from the IRC in West Africa do so because of domestic violence.   They may be beaten or even more seriously injured by husbands or boyfriends; robbed of whatever meager earnings they have; abandoned or forced to be part of polygamous relationships; subjected to marital rape; and, in some instances, tortured and killed. 
 
Our commission came here to raise awareness about this terrible problem, to show solidarity with those affected, and most of all, to frame the importance of seeking local, national and international solutions – an objective IRC has been working toward in West Africa and other countries for years. “Focusing on violence against women is one of our signature programs,” says IRC president George Rupp. 
 
Or, in the words of Jacinta Maingi, IRC’s program coordinator in Liberia for women’s protection and empowerment: “There is a difference between a house and a home.  Where there is violence, a house is not a home.  When you are in pain, it means you have no home to go to.” 
 
How propitious that the first stop on our journey of investigating this terrible cause of “homelessness” in women was here in Liberia — where the newly reelected President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, herself a survivor of an abusive first marriage, is among those trying to foment change. 
 
We set out early this morning for our first round of meetings to explore the issues.  Our first stop, in the bustling and crowded township of West Point, was the local Women’s Center and a visit with representatives from various local Women’s Action Groups  — organizations the IRC has helped to form to advocate for domestic violence survivors and ensure that they get whatever care and support they need. 
 
Gathered at the center were several women from West Point, as well as others from communities on the outskirts  of Monrovia:  Darquee’s Town, Barnersville and Chocolate City.   Although we were “strangers,” as the Liberian colloquialism had it, they quickly took us into their confidence. The tales they told of the abuses that they and their compatriots had suffered were harrowing. 
 
Woman after woman told stories of how husbands or boyfriends of women in the community had beaten them, broken their teeth, slashed their hands and fingers and sent them to local hospitals for emergency care.  In at least one instance the women described, one pregnant woman was kicked in the stomach by her husband and subsequently miscarried.  Another was disemboweled.  
 
As commission members, of course, we were not in a position to verify these reports, but only listened.   
 
We listened as the women described the frequent futility of going to local police to report on instances of domestic violence, only to be told to return home and settle the matter with their abusive husbands. Sometimes the police demand bribes, or what are known locally as “walking fees,” before they will arrest a husband. 
 
Sometimes women decline to report husbands or seek prosecution, out of fear that husbands will be imprisoned; that the violence at home will only increase; or that a husband will retaliate by taking another wife. 
 
The Women’s Action Groups are helping.   They assist survivors by escorting them to the hospital, reporting abuse episodes to police, and training others in the community to support domestic violence survivors.  They educate groups of young people about avoiding the fractured gender relationships of the past and present and seeking a new gender paradigm for the future.  And they work with men’s groups also, to raise awareness of the violence and the need to reverse it. 
 
Yet, as forces working to change the status quo in their own communities, the members of the Women’s Groups fear for their safety. 
 
“We don’t go out at night, because there are men in this community who say, ‘If we see you in a corner alone, we will harm you’,” explained one.  There are many men who complain that the members of the Women’s Action Group are a nefarious influence on the community… that they are “educating” women; that they are making them “frisky,” and no longer subservient to male will. 
 
Moving on to a local hotel, we commission members sat down with other victims of domestic violence  — a group of six women, many of them in their 20s, who had suffered at the hands of husbands or boyfriends.  One by one, they told their stories, and cried. 
 
Among the most poignant was the story told by Mary, a woman originally from Ghana.  In her lap, she held an infant, a baby named Grace.  She described how her husband had abused her serially for months before finally abandoning her.  With no one to turn to, she had given birth to her baby, Grace, alone, on the floor of her hut.  Later, she had begged a neighbor for a knife so she could cut the baby’s umbilical cord. 
 
 

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