Read this article in French.
Kind sirs, stop beating your wives!
“Even if he beats me and insults me, he gives me food to eat. If I leave him, how will I manage?” This fatalistic confession comes from Marie. But it could have come from Aicha, Stella or more than 20% of the female population of Chad aged between 15 and 49. On a daily basis, these women are victims of psychological, physical and/or sexual violence, and they have very few legal texts to help them to defend themselves.
Social and cultural burdens make the situation for women in Chad especially difficult. Although the level of women’s literacy has increased significantly since the 1990s, it is still more than 50% lower than the level for men (around 17%). Women remain poorly represented in administration and public services, with their activities beyond the home concentrated in the informal sector. Current legal texts make no distinction between men and women, but in practice, access to school is limited for women. Forced marriages remain a significant problem, as does female genital mutilation: nationally, 45% of women are cut and 92% are cut in the regions of Batha, Guéra and Salamat. For every women’s statute there is a corresponding traditional and religious practice which is often in contradiction with statutory provisions and written law. This is what happens when you have the coexistence of customary law and civil law: Chadian women do not enjoy their rights in marriage and inheritance.
In Chad, the social and cultural environment accords little importance to women, who are considered “inferior” to men. It’s the man’s duty to make all the decisions; it’s the woman’s duty to go along with them. Couples do not talk, or if they do, they talk little. All those “could have saids” and frustrations accumulate in various expressions of violence, explains barrister Delphine Kemneloum.
Another reason for this situation, says Delphine, is that the violence committed by men against women is always a manifestation of conflicts that could have been settled through dialogue. Yet dialogue is not the first solution people take in Chad when it comes to resolving conflicts. Often we can resolve the effects of conflicts but not the conflicts themselves, which will always re-ignite from the ashes. We could extend this analysis to the whole country which, in spite of general social stability, is pock-marked by isolated and enduring conflicts.
Having been married in accordance with local customs the year before, Nelloum recently died as a result of the assault and injury inflicted by her husband, Pierre. Fed up of being beaten by her husband after sharing their life together for a year, she fled their conjugal home and sought refuge at her parents’ house. Her parents, unable to pay back her dowry (the money they had been given to symbolise the union of the couple in accordance with national tradition) told Nelloum to go back home. The aim was to give them time to get the necessary money together. Nelloum was found dead the day after she returned to her husband. She lay with blood congealed around her nostrils and her ears.
Pierre, in a moment of fury had killed his wife and his step-mother because he could not tolerate the idea that his wife would go back to her mother’s house following a marital conflict because of assault and injury. She didn’t have this right because he had paid the dowry. During his trial, he testified to the jury that if he had the chance to do it again, he would. He is now enjoying new found freedom.
These examples are part of a much larger trend, but few statistics exist to take stock of this violence. Many women undergo violence but rarely speak out about it because the subject remains a taboo. Women’s economic dependence is an important factor in this silence. According to a multi-indicator cluster study conducted by the National Institute of Statistics in 2010, only 22% of women aged between 15 and 24 are literate. Among this 22%, many are those who never made it to middle school, or who fell pregnant while they were enrolled there. They are therefore dependent on their spouses.
According to the Optional Protocol which Chad has adopted, but not ratified, violence against women is defined as: all acts perpetrated against women causing or potentially causing women to experience prejudice or suffering of a physical, sexual, psychological or economic nature, including the threat of committing these acts, the imposition of restrictions or the arbitrary denial of fundamental liberties, whether in private life or in public life, in peacetime or in situations of conflict or war.
In Chad, there are legal instruments and structures that allow women to get informed and to protect themselves from these abuses. The Civil Code of 1958, which places the duty to provide food on parents, is one such instrument. However these legal tools do not take into consideration many of the elements linked to violence against women. For the national celebration of the Week of the Woman in 2007, the President of the Chadian Republic, Idriss Déby Itno, committed to concentrate his efforts on the implementation of the Chadian Family Code. Having been kept stuffed in the draws of the National Assembly for almost a decade, this Code divides the political class in Chad. This Family Code, of which one of the key objectives is to outline a modern statute for women, has simply not seen any significant progress. Women’s access to property is still difficult in rural settings and women’s representation in parliamentary decision making processes is still marginal. The code outlines all the aspects that would allow women to gain more responsibility and also to contribute to the drafting and promulgation of legal texts.
Having served as Deputy Head of studies before being appointed to the Ministry of Social and Family Action for almost 15 years, Mr Asbakréo now runs a project which provides assistance and legal aid to women, children and disadvantaged people. He claims the Family Code is long overdue, mainly because the Optional Protocol has been rejected by the National Assembly several times (the ratification of these instruments would be a threat to the peace of mind and security of those who abuse women). Yet he sees some light at the end of the tunnel, “when I started my work, women had real problems just talking about the violence they were undergoing. But thanks to a range of awareness raising initiatives that have taken place nationally, they are starting to realise that they have rights. This is demonstrated by the increased number of requests for assistance that our legal service team receive. Before women suffered, now they dare to speak out”.
From 50 reported cases in 2006, Delphine Kemneloum recorded 150 in 2011. Yet there is a lot more to be done; day-to-day Chadian women are still beaten, humiliated and crushed beneath the weight of traditions. If we took the time to really explore the origins of these traditions we would see that women were not predestined to be their husbands’ punch-bags. Neloumngaye Sidonie, a Chadian housewife explains, in her own words, women’s condition: “I am sometimes the victim of unfair dismissal if I demand a salary, or an improvement in my working conditions…I am still alive but some of my sister colleagues, having given their all, leave life mutilated or pass away while someone says, 'a woman shouldn’t die while giving birth to life'… This leads me to ask her Excellency the First Lady, and the Minister for Social and Family Action, who are speaking today on this day dedicated to women, to not forget me in their policies for the well-being of women. They should help me to resolve my many problems, because I have no trade union to help me to improve my living and working conditions. Finally, I wish a happy Women’s Day to her Excellency the First Lady on the 8th of March; she is a recourse and resource for housewives par excellence. Happy Women’s Day to the Minister for Social and Family Action, to the wives of the different ministers, not forgetting the housewives: those who shine with a thousand lights and yet who suffer, resigned in their corners.”*
Chadian women must be treated with dignity and respect because they are not inferior, and their destiny is not to submit to male chauvinism (la phallocratie masculine.)
*Complaints of a Chadian Housewide by Neloumngaye Sidonie from 8th March 2012, published on the website of Journal du Tchad.
This article was translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp.
Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.