Violence against women: marriage or suffering

A survey sheds light on the dark practices which women suffer from in Guinea-Bissau. Forced marriage is only one example here of a sad tradition that is still part of daily life in many cultures. In addition to national laws, joint statements by religious and traditional leaders offer hope for improvement.

It took an infinite amount of courage: Ana, a young woman from Bissorã in the Oio region, refused with the support of a pastor to enter into a forced marriage, even though this was against the will of her family. Ana began a new life in another area, fell in love and became a mother. Her child became ill, and her family encouraged her to return home to treat him using traditional methods.

Back in her old home, the young woman was held captive by her family and forced to accept the marriage imposed on her. The child’s father tried to intervene – unsuccessfully. He was threatened and prevented from helping his young wife.

Forced marriage: only one form of violence against women

Ana is a fictional name, but the story is no less real. In Guinea-Bissau, forced marriage is sadly an everyday occurrence. Young girls who are still children are promised to men of all ages. The families look forward to financial reward and social blessings. The wedding takes place when the girls reach puberty.

Forced marriage is only one form of violence suffered by women in Guinea-Bissau. Many cases are never made public. In many locations, violence goes along with the cultural norms and local customs and is therefore not seen as a violation of women’s rights.

Also justified by women – or suppressed

A SWISSAID survey sheds light on the background and significance of violence against women. In addition to forced childhood marriage, the most important cited forms were female genital mutilation and domestic violence. Parliament passed a law banning female genital mutilation in 2011 and domestic violence in 2014. Nevertheless, women’s rights continue to be violated in many ways. For example, in three years not a single court case has been brought for domestic violence.

Oppression and violence against women in Guinea-Bissau are deeply rooted in society and the mentality – and it is even justified or suppressed by women themselves. 42 per cent of less educated women find it normal for a man to beat his wife in certain cases such as when she leaves the house without his knowledge, contradicts him or doesn’t cook well.

Those who don’t listen must suffer

To this day, forced marriage is still carried out as a traditional ritual. In the culture of the Balanta people, for example, it is common practice for the wife to take a niece into her home and raise her. When the wife starts the menopause, the niece has to take over her sexual duties towards the husband. Those who refuse feel the brutal consequences of such disrespect for tradition.

Pastor Caetano of the Evangelical Church in Bissau gives refuge in his home to young girls who want to escape forced marriage. He remembers one case: “A 14-year-old girl was to marry a 70-year-old. She was tortured because she refused to accept this – the girl continued to refuse until she could no longer endure the physical torture and died.”

Only laws are effective against traditions

SWISSAID has launched an education project involving 800 men and 800 women from all walks of life. Awareness is raised about the situation through media and in schools, working towards bringing about a change. It is hoped that joint written statements by traditional and religious leaders from several villages working to bring about an end to female genital mutilation and forced marriage will reap dividends. There were six statements signed in 2017.

Civilian society has already notched up one success: discrimination and violence are no longer taboo and are discussed in the media. This is one of the reasons why many circumcisers have given up their jobs. Some have even been convicted. Only if people held in high esteem speak out against violence against women, if the issue is debated publicly and if a national law is devised to ban forced marriage will girls like Ana be allowed to follow their heart in future, and without having to fear immense suffering.