Awa was killed by her husband last November in Guelendeng, 150km south of the Chad capital N’djamena. Her death was the tipping point for the town’s women, who, appalled by the rampant violence they face, have decided to fight for their rights.
In December dozens of women took part in a protest march, the first of its kind in Guelendeng, to condemn the violation of their rights and to call the government to account over the impunity that prevails.
Murders, beatings, underage marriage, sexual violence – the list of violations is long. "There have been so many cases of violence that we can no longer sit and do nothing,” Catherine Ndaokaï, information and awareness officer for the Violence Against Women Monitoring Committee, told IRIN. “This violence is so widespread that men even sit around and chat about it.”
Involvement in the march posed a threat for many participants, said Martine Klah, president of the monitoring committee that was created the day after the march "so that the movement does not stop here".
In this region where men are traditionally seen as the "dominant ones", Klah said, “Men told us that they were going to kill us one by one for having held that march.”
Cultural beliefs constitute one of the greatest obstacles to fighting the violence, the women said. "Women are at the bottom of the [social] ladder and are seen as property", said Delphine Kemneloum Djiraibe, national coordinator of the Monitoring Committee to Call for Peace and National Reconciliation in Chad. "People can do whatever they want to a woman.”
"If she dies, it is her own fault"
When Habiba was 12 her deceased father’s brother gave her away to be married to a military officer in his 50s. She became his third wife and gave birth to a son the following year. Habiba, who said her husband regularly beats her, has run away from the family home in N’djamena several times to seek refuge with her mother in Guelendeng, a town 150km away. But her uncle has sent her back to her husband each time. During one of her last escape attempts a few months ago her husband tried to kill her.
"It was around 7pm when he arrived [in Guelendeng] and found me at the side of the road. He told me he had just come to kill me and go. Then he stabbed me twice in the back,” said Habiba, who is alive only because passersby intervened.
"I tried to get the parents, the husband, [local and traditional] chiefs and the young girl together,” he told IRIN. “We organised four meetings but the husband refused to come.”
According to human rights defenders, the husband, who was released after what one referred to as “a so-called arrest" in N’djamena, continues to make death threats to Habiba.
"I have to hide. I cannot sleep at night because I am scared [my husband] is going to come back. I have lost my appetite. The family does not leave me alone and my husband is spying on me. I do not know what to do. I just want to be away from him, that’s all.”
Local human rights activists, who have tried to establish a dialogue, have also received threats.
Mahamat Abdoulaye, Habiba’s uncle, said that she alone is responsible. "Customary marriage lays down certain rules,” he told IRIN. “We gave [Habiba to her husband] so that he would look after her for us. If she did not want it, she should have come to see us [the paternal family] to give back the dowry that the man paid, as our Muslim tradition states. She did not say anything to us and so [her husband] took action. If she dies it is her own fault".
The prevailing context of violence in a country where attacks on civilians by armed groups and general instability have been the norm for decades has undoubtedly exacerbated violence against women, human rights activists say.
"Men say that women are behind the [violent attacks], but back in the time of our grandparents people did not kill each other,” information officer Ndaokaï said "Even if a women was caught [doing something wrong], a man would have just got rid of her."
The women of Guelendeng recognise there is a lack of support for victims of abuse. "We don’t know the basic legal documentation to defend the rights of women," monitoring committee president Klah said.
Chad has laws on the books, including on reproductive health, but the implementing decrees were never published, rights activists say. A Family Code bill, drawn up several years ago still has not gone through Parliament. Human rights activists say the delay is due to conservatives who think the law gives women too much power.
In the meantime magistrates are attempting to use existing documentation from the Penal Code, such as sections relating to ‘bodily harm’, Lydie Asngar Mbaiassem Latoï, director of the promotion of women and gender integration unit at the Ministry of Social Affairs, told IRIN.
But existing legal remedies are inadequate, women say. The gaps and the prevailing tendency for impunity mean that the perpetrators of this violence are almost never prosecuted – and men know this, which encourages them to continue these acts, Larlem Marie, President of APLFT, an organisation promoting basic rights in Chad, told IRIN.
"Recently a man who wanted to attack his wife told her he could kill her because either way he would get away with it,” Larlem said. “He pointed to a case in which a man killed his wife without the slightest repercussion,” she told IRIN.
Women often fail to file a complaint because they are terrified of retaliation. Djiraibe pointed out that even were a woman to pursue a case, she would have nowhere to go to be safe from her attacker, as no facilities are available for victims of violence, particularly domestic violence.
“There is opposition to [creating facilities of this kind] on the grounds that it encourages women to leave their homes,” she said. “So there is no alternative [to the conjugal home]; if women [lodge a complaint] they will end up on the streets.”
While Guelendeng’s women are speaking out, many more women around the country suffer in silence, rights activists say. Humanitarian and human rights organisations report that the phenomenon is widespread but a lack of studies makes it difficult to determine the extent.
Photo: Anne Isabelle Leclercq/IRIN
|Habiba, now 16, lives in fear that her husband will kill her|
The Social Affairs Ministry plans to launch a nationwide survey this year that will in part measure the extent of violence against women, with support from UNFPA, according to Mbaiassem Latoï. And the ministry and UNFPA are working on a free helpline connected to the police, aimed at giving victims legal and medical help.
Aid workers say it is an issue that demands immediate action. "There is no sense of urgency even though we are facing a growing level of violence and there are more and more reports of feelings of insecurity,” said Marzio Babille, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in Chad.
Human rights activists say support from the authorities is critical to protecting women’s rights. The women of Guelendeng said they are fortunate in this respect. "We can go and see the [regional] prefect if we have a problem; he listens to us and supports us,” said one of the women.
Gabdibe Passore Ouadjiri Loth, the prefect, has been involved in several human rights cases and has links with the Ministry of the Interior and the presidency. "If a man will not protect his own mother, whom will he protect?" he said. But he recognised that the country was still run by “male chauvinists”.
The Ministry of Social Affairs’Mbaiassem Latoï said: “Things are moving forward slowly but surely. Everything is under construction: laws, policies.”
She added: “The [economic and security] crisis has turned everything upside down: many women have become heads of households and men are realising that they should not neglect them. This awakening has not reached its peak, but it will come. Either way, civil society will not stop".