Abidjan — A shiver ran down Habiba Kanaté's* spine when she read about a policeman shooting and killing his wife in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d'Ivoire. "That could have been me," she said.
IPS met the 28-year-old at a social centre in the south Abidjan neighbourhood of Treichville, one of a number of women there seeking help with domestic violence.
"There hasn't been a single day in the past three months when I haven't been insulted, threatened or struck by my husband," said the mother of three.
"My husband tells me off for challenging him when he makes a decision that I don't agree with. It's humiliating and frustrating."
Also at the Treichville centre was Céline Konan*, the light wounds on her face still open. "I was beaten twice in the space of a week - in front of the children - just because my partner was in a bad mood."
She told IPS she also had pain in her abdomen where her husband had kicked her.
And it wasn't Konan's first visit to the centre: social workers had already come to her home several times, asking her partner to desist. "Unfortunately, it's had no effect," she said.
Another regular visitor at the centre was Juliette Téo*. "You can't count the marks on my cheeks from slaps. Each time, I've lost at least two teeth," she said.
Téo said it was her partner beat her because she complained about his infidelity. "My husband told me that he's the head of the household and each time I cause a scene, I'll be corrected," she said.
In June, the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation, published a report on domestic violence in Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone, finding that abuse including - burning, battery, rape and psychological violence - is common in all three West African countries. The report stated that more than 60 percent of women in the countries examined are survivors of violence, primarily by their intimate partners.
Gladys Marie-Angela Asso Bally, director of the Treichville centre, told IPS increasing numbers of women were coming for help. "Since the post-electoral crisis, men have become more violent in their households than in the past. From two or three cases, we've passed to dozens to deal with every day."
Each week the centre does its best to offer psychological help and legal assistance to hundreds of victims of all kinds of violence.
"Because of cultural and religious norms, we are really struggling to fight against this scourge," explained Asso Bally. "Many women are afraid to testify. They think that they will end up putting their husbands in prison or chase them out of their homes."
Kanaté's concerns illustrate the challenge. "Imagine if my husband was in prison," she asked, "where would I find the means to support him and the children? And my in-laws? What will they think knowing that I was at the root of such a situation?"
The centre's director said the other difficulty is that the relevant law, passed in 1981, which in her view is ineffective in the fight against domestic violence.
"The law asks women to provide hard evidence that they have been beaten. Or else the man must be caught in the very act of aggression in order to be prosecuted. It's as if one is waiting for someone to die before reacting," said Asso Bally.
In early July, Sarah Fadiga Sako, the first vice-president of the National Assembly, said the next revision of the Personal and Family Code would strengthen the legislation to support more determined efforts against the evils of domestic violence.
But Fanta Coulibaly, who heads the National Commission To Fight Against Violence Against Women and Children at the Ministry of Family, Women and Children, believes that eradicating domestic abuse requires action on several fronts.
"The phenomenon is alarming and the law alone is not enough," said Coulibaly. "The whole population needs to work against this evil," said Coulibaly, calling for an awareness campaign against violence in households in communities.
"It's irresponsible for men to continue to behave like this. For me, if (putting offenders in) prison is a problem, then these people need to be sentenced to forced labour in order to educate them," said Ferdinand Kouassi, a construction entrepreneur in Abidjan.
*Names have been changed.