Women described the factors that contributed to IPV in post-conflict Sierra Leone and Liberia as being inter-related in complex ways and commonly described IPV as part of a cluster of behaviours, including the man’s infidelity and failure to provide for his family. The majority of women’s responses were focused on cultural and financial issues as two overarching categories, which underlie many of the causal factors they identified. We first describe these overarching issues and then the specific ways in which experiences of war interact with them to influence IPV.
Cultural models and social norms
Underlying much of the discussion around factors that contribute to IPV in Sierra Leone and Liberia were issues relating to traditional culture, particularly as it relates to gender roles and expectations. Respondents related two traditional cultural beliefs in particular to IPV: firstly the belief that a woman is her husband’s property, especially if he has paid dowry; and secondly the belief that the man has total authority in the home and his decisions and actions are not to be questioned by his partner.
Even if a man he came late, and a woman asks him ‘where are you coming from?’, he will beat her for that. ‘Why should you ask me? I’m the one who should control you, you don’t have the right to ask me’. So you get beaten for that. ‘I’m the head of the household. I’m the head of this home, you don’t ask me any questions. Your duty is to sit in this home’. (Voinjama group 1)
Whilst our findings suggest that many men and women in Sierra Leone do not adhere strictly to these traditional beliefs, the respondents said that when men did hold these beliefs strongly, IPV was more likely.
Women questioning men’s authority: a trigger point for violence
Given the cultural belief that males have absolute authority in the home, it is risky for women to give any negative response to a man’s behaviours or decisions. Male infidelity is common in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, and IPV was often said to occur when a woman challenged her partner over his extra-marital relationships, or over the money he spends on girlfriends. In some cases, women’s husbands told them that they had taken a second wife, and when the woman refused to accept the second wife into her home, she was beaten.
Other challenges said to commonly trigger violence included a woman asking her partner for money or questioning his use of money; or complaining about his staying out late; or drinking excessively. A man’s angry response to such questioning is linked to gender norms which construct men as having the right to do what they choose without giving an explanation to their partner.
He doesn’t sleep in the house and when he comes in the morning and people try to tell him, he will insult them, and when I talk he begins to beat me. Sometimes he takes stick and beats me. Whenever he sleeps out and I ask him he beats me – whenever I ask him about anything, he beats me. If there’s no soap to wash the baby things, no food money, if I ask him he will beat me. (Monrovia 19)
A woman’s attempt to participate in decision-making in relation to household resources was also said to be a trigger for violence in some relationships.
Men don’t understand about women’s rights in the house, like decision-making. If you have cultivated groundnuts, and you have harvested it, the one to sell it needs to engage me in decision-making. If he sells that thing now, and I come and ask for it, and he tells me ‘you are not controlling the house, I’m the head of the house’. Then you quarrel because you’re not seeing the money and both of us cultivated it; it was a joint something, and now you’re saying you’re the head of the house, we quarrel. The end result is beating. The men always think that they have rights. (Kailahun group 2)
In addition to verbal questioning of her partner’s behaviour, a woman was also said to risk a violent response if she questioned her partner’s authority by refusing to have sex or to carry out tasks.
Some women, when they’re aware that their husbands have girlfriends, they want to protect themselves. And if they do, that’s where the fight comes; if they refuse their man sex he’ll beat her. (Freetown group 2)
Household economic relations
Financial issues were described to be a central factor in many violent relationships. IPV often occurred when a man was not supporting his family, either because he was unable to or because he spent his money on activities outside the home (typically girlfriends and/or drinking alcohol). In some situations, women attributed a man’s anger to his partner questioning his use of household resources and money. In others, they described that a man’s anger is sometimes due to shame that he was unable to support his family in the way that a man should. However, some respondents pointed out that not all men who were struggling financially responded violently when asked for money at home; some were able to explain the constraints they were under to their wives, and the couple would find a solution together. Thus, women did not see poverty as the direct cause of IPV; rather, they observed interactions between poverty and men’s beliefs about gender roles and their ability to communicate with their partners.
Sometimes you see the husbands don’t have financial means to support the home, and the wife is trying to talk of the children’s school fees, trying to talk of the feeding of the home, and you will see men getting so angry and chopping on the wife and fighting. Because of financial support. Because he don’t have to give, and then he sees the woman asking him to give, so he’ll just get angry because it’s shaming him. He feels ashamed and jumps on the wife, ‘you’re supposed to be down, you’re not supposed to give me hard time’, he will jump on the wife and start to beat her … [But] some, if he will not have, you ask them for support or for tuition, they will take their time and explain, not all of them are violent. (Monrovia group 2)
Women’s financial dependence on men
According to our respondents, women’s financial dependence on men contributes to IPV in a number of ways. Firstly, if a woman has no income of her own, she is forced to ask her partner for money to meet all of her needs and those of her children, which was said to be a common trigger for violence. A woman who has no independent source of income has fewer options if her relationship becomes violent; it is difficult for her to leave regardless of how badly she is treated. This may lead her partner to use violence with no fear of any repercussions; the man knows that she will not leave, report him to the police, or take any other action that may jeopardise the relationship.
When you are dependent on the man completely, you can’t leave. He can do anything to you. You have to remain there because you are dependent on him. That’s the reason some women can remain there until they get killed. (Voinjama group 2)
A group of women who are particularly vulnerable to IPV are young women from poor families. When the girl’s family is unable to provide for her, she may feel forced into relationships with men who are in a position to provide; her complete dependence on the man leaves her vulnerable to abuse.
Direct effects of war on IPV
Women were specifically asked about how the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia had affected IPV. Very few of the survivors interviewed individually believed that their own abusive partner’s behaviour was influenced by the war.
He didn’t join the rebels or the government troops. He’s just a wicked man. It [the war] had no effect at all. (Kailahun 8)
Some participants in group discussions also felt that the experience of war had not affected men’s use of violence towards women because they had seen the same behaviours even before the war. However, the majority in the group discussions reported that the war did influence IPV in several ways. Women described direct effects of war on IPV, as well as how social changes related to the war affected IPV.
A number of the women we spoke to felt that many of the men who had fought in the war, or who had accompanied the fighters, had been permanently affected by their experiences. They had come to see violence as a normal way of responding to challenges or frustrations and as an appropriate way of getting what they wanted. Former fighters who had been used to commanding others and getting material goods by force were said to be frustrated because they were no longer able to fulfil their needs so easily and to take out this frustration on their wives or girlfriends.
Some men are used to the weapons, they are still used to the violent behaviour, they are used to getting things free of charge, they don’t pay for it. And as a result, when things are normal now, they are not getting those free things, and you are staying with them, it will just result in violent behaviour. They were very used to looting of property, you know, and now they don’t have anything. So if you’re in a relationship with those kinds of men, you the woman, you are in trouble. Maybe he wants a small thing, maybe he wants to smoke a cigarette, he does not have money, it results into anger and then the only thing he has to do is use his fists. (Kailahun group 1)
In addition, those who had committed or seen sexual violence during the war were thought to have reduced respect for women and thus be more likely to mistreat them. Those who were children at the time of the war and were involved either as combatants or as followers were said to have been particularly affected by their experiences.
The child soldiers. The rebels, their followers that didn’t hold the gun, they are no longer boys. And now that they learned all that violence, they have grown up now. Most of these boys, they were the followers, they were carrying the loads of the fighters, so they were seeing how they were brutalising people, beating them to remove their property, to rape women. They have seen all those things during the war, and they were young boys. Now that they have grown up, they are doing it, and they are doing it more than those who were doing it during the war. (Kailahun group 3)
Some of those who used drugs during the war were said to have ongoing psychological effects, and some continued to use drugs even after the war, which our respondents believed increased their violent behaviour.
During the war some men took drugs, like cocaine, marijuana, and they are still in that habit. So after the war, maybe you go into a small argument, and the end result is fighting. Most of them fought during the war, in fact we have so many rebels here, and most of them were taking drugs. Every day they fight. If they don’t quarrel with their wives in the morning, they quarrel in the afternoon or in the evening. (Kailahun group 2)
Some of those who did not fight in the war were also said to be directly affected in ways that increased the likelihood of their perpetrating IPV. The distressing experiences that occurred during the war, particularly the loss of loved ones and of property, were said to make it difficult for some people to tolerate additional stresses. Women said that men who experienced these reactions to the consequences of war were sometimes more likely to respond to challenges in the home with violence.
With a conflict you find that so many people are distressed. And if a man is distressed, and a woman comes bothering him with regards to food for the home and that kind of thing, or asking for other kinds of support, definitely the man, rather than trying to get the woman to see reason as to his situation, the reaction is either verbal violence or physical violence. (Freetown group 1)
A final direct effect of the war mentioned by some respondents was that wartime encourages the establishment of unstable marriages, in which violence is more likely to occur. This happens in two ways: firstly, a woman who loses her husband in the war may marry again quickly because she needs a man to support her, and is not always in a position to choose a non-violent partner; secondly, young girls are forced to marry fighters who, as we have seen above, may be particularly likely to use violence.
Some women lost their husbands during the war, and when they’ve lost their husbands they try to force themselves to other men because of their children. And when that happens and they have conflict, and the woman is normally hot-tempered because she’s stressed, and the man will say ‘Don’t come and bring your stress on me, I’m not the one that killed your husband’. (Freetown group 3)
War-related transitions in women’s social roles
Across all of the four research locations, participants described how, during the war, women took responsibility for their families and became less dependent on men. This continued after the war, and women became more confident and more willing to challenge their partners.
One big change we are seeing is that women are engaged in a lot of income generating activities. Women are not idling now like before, initially women were dependent on their husbands, but now women are engaged in a lot of income generating activities, because a lot of them are breadwinners, and they pay school fees for their children. The other big change is that women’s voices, women are able to speak out. Before the war, women would not speak in such gatherings, it’s only men, but now we even speak as women in our own space and when we are with them we talk as well, so it’s a big change. Sometimes our voices are heard. We suggest, and our suggestions are being taken … Here, we have a woman as our local councillor. Before the war, that was not happening. Before the war you can’t even have a woman to aspire to paramount chieftancy, but that just happened. A woman contested to be paramount chief, and even though she didn’t win, she contested. Before the war, you can’t even dream about you, as a woman, being paramount chief here, let alone speak about it openly. Now women aspire as candidates for paramount chieftancy, and you see their pictures pasted on the walls. (Kailahun group 1)
In addition, women said that after the war, many national and international NGOs started working on issues of women’s rights and empowerment and established services for women affected by IPV. A great deal of sensitisation around these issues was conducted in communities, both for men and for women.
There was less agreement about men’s responses to this change and some diversity in the experiences reported. Some women said that these changes in women’s roles and behaviours had led to an increase in IPV, whilst others said that it had led to a decrease.
Transitioning social roles: decreases in IPV?
In some cases, women described that men began to recognize that the empowerment of women in terms of economic opportunities and participation in decision-making benefited not only women, but also men and the whole family. Some of these attitudes of men were attributed to engagement of men in the sensitisation conducted by NGOs. In these cases, women described how the new equality in relationships contributed to a decrease in IPV in the home.
Immediately after the war, domestic violence was high. But because of the sensitisation, the inflow of NGOs in Kailahun, most of them know what is what at this point, so it’s minimising. Even men are realising that if both the men and women contribute in the home, development will be faster than when he was alone providing. As a result, they are allowing women to engage in skills training activities. (Kailahun group 4)
Some respondents said that when women were able to contribute financially to the family, the pressure on men to provide for all their families’ needs was reduced, which in turn reduced the likelihood of IPV occurring.
I think that because women are going out and contributing, domestic violence is reducing. Most times, where the issue has been is when the man is 100% breadwinner. So if there is a day when he does not have, that’s where the beating comes. So now, if he brings half and I also bring half, he won’t beat me. (Kailahun group 2)
In addition, the fact that women have some financial independence was said to have a deterrent effect on men who know that their partners can leave if they are dissatisfied with the relationships. Women’s financial independence also was said to reduce IPV by giving young women the freedom to take their time in choosing the men they want to be with, rather than agreeing to be with the first man who offers to take care of them financially.
Education about women’s rights and the services available to women who are experiencing IPV were also said to deter men from beating their partners, because they knew that there were people their partners could call on for help, so there may be some consequences of their actions.
Domestic violence is reducing because of the empowerment, because prior to the empowerment, women were dependent on men in this area. So if a man said ‘get up! Go and clean my shoes’, we as women would be trembling because we felt that, if I say no, this man has my whole life. What if he says he isn’t going to feed me? What if he should leave me, what am I going to do? Right now I have something, I have the right to say, ‘yes papa, I’ll go and clean your shoe, but let me just do one or two things first’, because I have my own money. He will get vexed, because the first time he say ‘get up’ and we as women would be trembling to get up, but now he says ‘get up’ and you say ‘OK, I’ll do it later’, indeed he will get angry … But he won’t beat me because now I know my rights when he beat me, I will take him to the police. Before I didn’t know where to take him, but now I know where to take him. (Voinjama group 3)
The quotation above illustrates the interaction between the effects of empowerment and the importance of rights and services. If the woman above had financial independence, but did not know her rights and did not have access to services, she could be at increased risk of IPV. But she feels that the combination of financial empowerment, knowledge of rights, and access to services decreases her risk.
Transitioning social roles: increases in IPV?
Not everyone described social changes as positive. Rather, some women also reported that these same changes could sometimes lead to an increase in IPV. The women we spoke to said that some men saw women’s financial independence as a threat or a challenge and were therefore more likely to use IPV in an attempt to re-exert control over their partners.
Domestic violence has increased after the war, they won’t stop beating. As long as I’m finding my own money. Even if you beat me I will hide it [the money] … Even if you have your own money, they’ll say you are challenging them. It’s because you have your own money, that’s why you’re challenging them. (Kailahun group 3)
Some women said that men saw during the war that women were able to provide for their families, and after the war they expected women to continue to do this and became angry with women who did not. When men began to earn money after the war, some of our respondents said they did not use it to benefit the family since they expected women to provide for the family’s needs; they instead used it outside the family, for example to support girlfriends. This led to conflict within the family, as women challenged their partners about their failure to contribute and about their infidelity. Women’s education and empowerment increased the likelihood that women would indeed challenge their partners on these issues.
Prior to the war and right now, the men, they are very different. Before the war, whenever a man was working, you the woman in the home, he would give you food money, he would give you money for clothing, but right now, even if the man is working, he doesn’t give you money. Men these days, they are working, but because they have four or five girlfriends, they have the money but they spend outside the home. Whenever you try to talk about it, they beat you. Prior to the war, even if they had girlfriends, they were focused to support the home. Before the war, women were not doing business, they were not selling … Now the war has also opened the eyes of men, because when they go out they see other women doing businesses, so they expect you to also be doing it. (Monrovia group 3)
A number of women said that post-war, some men got jobs and began to earn money again. They observed that these men sometimes used IPV in order to exert control over their partners and re-establish themselves as breadwinners and heads-of-households.
Just before the war ended in 2003, men were submissive because they had nothing; they had no resources. Women were the ones who went out to bring food, only a very few brave men went out, the ones who went out were the women, to go in search of food. Now they feel like they’re now earning money, so they want to exert control over women. When they had nothing, they put themselves down, they had no control over women. (Monrovia group 3)