By Louise Redvers
LUANDA — Teresa Barros' problems started last year with the death of her baby. "Our youngest daughter died," Barros explained. "My husband blames me, and now he drinks a lot and picks fights and makes confusion. "My family won't do anything. They said my other children need their father, and I must stay with him. But it's desperate, I can't go on like this," she added. Julieta Paulino has been forced to move in with her 24-year-old son after failing pregnant by her husband.
"We have been together for seven years," the 42-year-old sighed. "We built our house together and I run a small restaurant there, but now I am not welcome." Although Paulino has a seven-year-old daughter from her first husband, her second husband holds her responsible for not having had a child with him. "He blames me for this and has threatened to kill me," she told IPS.
"Last month he locked me in the house for two weeks, and when I was freed, I took my daughter and ran. I have nothing but these clothes I am wearing," Paulino explained. Barros and Paulino live in the slums of Angolan capital Luanda, where domestic violence is so common, it is tolerated as part of marriage.
There are no official statistics on the level of domestic violence in the country, but a survey by the Angolan Women's Organization (OMA), the women's wing of the country's ruling party, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, in peri-urban Cazenga noted nearly 4,000 incidents in 2008 — about ten attacks a day.
Moreover, a preliminary study, referred to in the 2009 United States State Department Human Rights report on Angola, recorded that 62 percent of women living in poor suburbs of the capital have experienced some form of household violence.
In a bid to tackle high levels of domestic violence, government, media, non-governmental organizations, churches, and local civil society groups have teamed up to launch an awareness and education campaign against domestic violence.
"For us, the question of domestic violence is a priority, because violence is an evil, which affects all of society. Children who are raised in violent environments turn into adults with traumas and continue to practice violence because for them it is normal," Ana Paula Sacramento, vice minister for Family and the Promotion of Women (MINFAMU), told IPS.
Domestic violence is not illegal in Angola — and on the rare occasions it reaches court, it is prosecuted under rape, assault, and battery laws. There is, however, a bill lodged in parliament for a new law, but Sacramento says it might only be passed by 2012.
Katila Pinto de Andrade, a gender expert at civil society organization Open Society, welcomes the law but says legislation alone is not enough: "It's not enough just to have a law to punish people. It needs to make sure victims have access to protection. We need shelters, and we need to ensure the perpetrators get psychological assessment."
Adele Kirsten, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) in Johannesburg, South Africa, believes Angola's high incidence of domestic violence is linked to the legacy of its three decades of civil war, which ended in 2002. CSVR, in conjunction with Luanda-based Canadian NGO Development Workshop (DW), in April produced a draft of the first comprehensive assessment of Angola's post-war reconciliation process for the International Centre for Transitional Justice.
The study notes that "little has been done with regard to the 'reconstruction of minds' as a result of violence, particularly at the socio-psychological level" and refers to an "amnesia approach" linked to the decision not to engage in a truth and reconciliation process, leaving unresolved traumas.
Another major finding from the interviews conducted as part of the study with all levels of Angolan society — from government ministers to street vendors — was post-conflict normalization of violence, aggravated by continuing poverty and social injustice.
Despite the country's vast oil and diamond riches, the World Bank estimates that two thirds of the 16 million Angolans live on less than two U.S. dollars a day, and according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), one in four children die before their 5th birthday, 10.5 million people have no access to sanitation, and 12,000 maternal deaths are recorded per year.
"During the war, women became the main breadwinners and heads of households," Kirsten explained. "When the men started returning home, they found family and community situations fundamentally altered and their role and place questioned, and this has bred frustration." "Nearly everyone we spoke to talked about high levels of household violence, and there is also a growing sense of other violence, in urban crime and gangs," she added.
The day-to-day support of survivors of violence is left largely to OMA, which runs the country's only safe house with space for four families at a time, leads community-based discussions on domestic violence and operates the bulk of advice centers that provide counseling to women, offer emergency credit, and facilitate conciliation sessions.
Eulalia Rocha Silva, OMA secretary general in Luanda, told IPS: "We do what we can, but we would like more money from government to be able to help more women." Rocha says tackling illiteracy, educating families to stop keeping girls at home instead of going to school, and giving women better chances at finding employment through schemes, such as micro-credits, are key to improving Angolan family life.
More such initiatives are urgently needed, because the new domestic violence law will come too late for Barros, Paulino, and Angola's tens of thousands of women who, like them, live in fear of violence or are destitute because they have been forced to leave their homes. For now, all they have is the support from OMA volunteers and the faint hope their lives will one day get better.
In The Madison Times .