Can senior-run mediation sessions change attitudes towards domestic abuse in Senegal?

Can senior-run mediation sessions change attitudes towards domestic abuse in Senegal?

A mediation in progress at the Maison de Justice in Rufisque, Senegal.

(Sylvain Cherkaoui/OSIWA)

Marieme is in the middle of explaining how she got her arm broken when she gets a phone call. It is from a neighbour looking after her three children. A wave of panic edges across her face. She reaches to pick up her large tiger print tote bag from the concrete floor - momentarily forgetting the left arm bandaged up and comforted in a cream muslin sling. The searing pain jolts it into full focus.

“I have to get back before he realises where I have gone,” she says to the administrator, a man in his late twenties who methodically shakes his head in agreement. It has been exactly one month and seven days since Marieme’s husband broke her arm at 3am during a fight between the couple. The arm needs surgery.

Marieme (whose name has been changed at her request) is sitting at the offices of the Maison de Justice (House of Justice), a civil court run by members of the community in Rufisque, a suburb east of Senegal’s capital Dakar.

She’s here to file a complaint of assault but doesn’t want to go through the judicial system.

“I know if I go to court this man will be locked up, but, because of my kids I also don’t want to be the one who sent their father to jail,” she says.

It is these sorts of cases that the Maison de Justice increasingly handles. It exists as a middle ground for those who find the judicial process difficult to understand, or are unwilling to prosecute.

“It is the traditional that we modernised,” explains Dieynaba Bâ, who became its first and only female mediator in 2014. “We tried to merge the cultural way of solving your problems with an old person in the village who is wise and the parliamentary system into what is now the MJ.”

There are 18 of such houses located around Senegal offering mediation sessions hosted by a retired magistrate or clerk living in the district and who has an understanding of the law. Mediation is free, voluntary, and cases can be escalated to the criminal courts.

When the service launched in 2004, it handled quarrels such as unpaid debts, land, and inheritance disputes among residents, which still make up the majority of cases heard. Then seven years ago, women started to seek it for domestic violence.

According to its most recent data collection (which was seen by Equal Times), at the end of 2015 the Maison de Justice claims to have settled more than 131,500 cases on issues related to gender, physical violence and inheritance.

Cultural barriers

Domestic violence is a widespread problem in Senegal.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 60 per cent of young Senegalese women think that wife-beating can be justified.

These attitudes persist despite the fact that Senegalese law criminalises assault with up to five years imprisonment. Domestic violence that causes lasting injuries carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Yet judges rarely enforce this and police often ignore cases. No law exists for marital rape.

“Women who denounce [domestic violence] are frowned upon,” says Awa Tounkara, a representative of the Senegalese Association of Women Lawyers (AJS) who run a drop-in centre for women in Dakar.

“The cultural barriers are such that the woman must always support [their husband], whatever the extent of the violence, or risk being stigmatised by her own social circle,” Tounkara said via email. “Maisons de Justice have an impact since they allow mediations.”

On average Bâ presides over more than 40 mediation sessions a week, with individual cases running into several hours.

“Some cases we can settle in five minutes, others after four hours we are still on it. We ask them to reflect. To think about what they want and then come back,” says Bâ.

“In cases of domestic violence generally it takes time because those people when they come they tend to bear all that they have in their heart. You have to have the patience to listen to them, and comfort them, before trying to find a solution… because they are in front of a woman, it is easier for them to talk to me.”

In Keur Massar, a commune 24 kilometres from Dakar, the Maison de Justice is broadening its impact. It has been recruiting bajenu gox, a traditional role in Senegal, where grandmothers in the community assist pregnant women.

“We are the mediators at the local level,” says 62-year-old Khadijatou Diallo, one of the 17 bajenu gox working with the Maison de Justice in Keur Massar since 2010.

“The work we do doesn’t have a time. At any time women can call us with their problems and ask for help… we talk to people saying that if there is an abuse in the community, if there is something you hear, we will bring it to Maison de Justice.”

It’s mid-afternoon and one case Diallo has brought forward is being heard by the mediator in a closed room.

“I never beat her because of anything else but the education of our kids,” says Mass Dieng who has come voluntarily and admits to abusing his wife. “We fight because she doesn’t want me to beat those kids. The oldest girl has been pregnant three times before getting married. The other one two times.”

At the end of the session the couples’ agreements are recorded. For Dieng, who has committed to stop beating his wife, the mediator’s wisdom is final.

“I agree to come back next week and to bring those kids with us to see what can be done,” says Dieng.

A last resort

Many of the women who come to the Maison de Justice simply want the violence to stop. Then there are others failed by the law’s shortcomings.

Safi (not her real name), who is 29 years old and has been married for ten years, has a small fragment of the wooden broom her husband beat her with lodged in her eye.

“By the time I’m coming here, I’m really desperate,” explains Safi. “You go to the court and instead of helping you they say ‘Where is your marriage certificate?’ and since I don’t have it, they are not helpful.”

In Senegal, the majority of unions amongst the 95 per cent Muslim population observe an Islamic ceremony, often without officially registering the marriage with authorities. Women who want a divorce then find it difficult without the proper legal documents.

Aminata Kebe, a programme analyst at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Senegal says part of the problem is funding.

“You need to pay a lawyer and fees for prosecution. You need to pay for a medical certificate in terms of rape and violence. Most of the victims are very poor,” says Kebe. “They cannot go through all of those formalities before they bring their case to court.”

Women like Marieme who refuse to leave their husbands pose further challenges. “Most married women who are abused prefer to remain in the marriage bond than to be divorced,” says Tounkara.

Bâ predicts the social mindset that the Maison de Justice is trying to address will take generations to overcome. “We cannot break the marriage socially. What we can do is try to find an alternative solution,” she says.

Marieme and her husband have two sessions planned. “I’m doing mediation,” Marieme says defiantly, “but the next time this happens I’m going directly to the tribunal.”