As Senegal's parliament prepares to debate possible changes to rape laws, civil society groups say legislative reforms will not be enough to combat sexual violence against women and children.
“It is not enough to put rapists in prison and change the laws," Adama Sow of the Senegalese NGO Action Group Against Child Rape (GRAVE) told IRIN. “That is needed, of course...but we also need to change mentalities. If not we will never overcome this problem.”
Representatives of NGOs, charities and government have drawn up a list of legal and social proposals for combatting sexual violence. The new commission, which held a workshop in December to discuss the issue, is expected to present the proposals to the Justice Ministry the week of 19 January.
Fatimata Sy, president of the national committee for the fight against violence on women (CLVF) and a member of the commission, said sexual violence must be seen for the serious problem that it is. “Not a day goes by when you do not open a newspaper and see a story about violence against women or children….It is very visible here, but society does not take it seriously enough, especially rape.”
She said early education is paramount. “We need to educate in schools and at home. To teach the respect of women and girls as human beings. That girls are of the same worth as boys.…It is going to be a long-term job."
Statistics are difficult to establish largely because of victims’ reluctance to speak up, rights activists say. But according to the pan-African human rights group RADDHO the situation in Senegal is worsening.
“For some time now, we have seen a real resurgence in violence, rapes and murders committed against women and young girls," RADDHO, based in the Senegalese capital Dakar, said in a recent report.
CLVF said it dealt with 69 cases of rape between January and October 2008. GRAVE treated 400 cases in 2007 and said it knows of six girls who were sexually assaulted in schools in Dakar since October 2008.
GRAVE's Sow said most victims fear the stigma attached to rape. “Here, the victim of sexual violence is often treated very badly. She is made to feel guilty, that she provoked the attack. [Victims'] needs are not taken into account.”
|...Here, the victim of sexual violence is often treated very badly. She is made to feel guilty, that she provoked the attack...|
Many victims are also put off by medical and legal expenses.
Rape is a crime in Senegal, carrying a jail term of up to 10 years. But Sy said the laws are often not enforced. "All too often in rape cases [judges] cite ‘extenuating circumstances’ and the perpetrator gets a mere few months in prison.”
GRAVE’s Sow said tradition is the primary cause of violence against women and children in Senegal, citing as an example forced marriage. He said a 12-year-old girl in Sedhiou, 450km south of Dakar, recently killed herself to escape a forced marriage.
For women of any age, marriage in Senegal is an institution in which many forms of abuse are tolerated, according to CLVF’s Sy. She said conjugal rape is common but rarely discussed much less condemned. “It is widely believed that once a woman has consented to marry then sex is an obligation."
Sy added: "Women are brought up being told [that if] you want your children to be successful you need to put up with a lot within the couple. It is a social norm to ‘let it go’. It is the price to pay. Women are stigmatised if they denounce [mistreatment].”
Primary school students not spared - see IRIN report
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