The scourge of sexual violence in West Africa, unveiled

When Zougba’s husband fled the jihadist violence crippling Burkina Faso, she soon found herself with her young son, daughter and other women on the road in a mission to join him. After 10km, four armed men surged into view from the side of the road. Her children bore witness as the men raped her, one after another. The police arrived too late.

More than 40% of women in West Africa are victims of violence at least once in their lifetimes, according to a 2018 report, Réseau des Femmes Elues Locales d’Afrique (REFELA). Together with Central Africa (65% of women are victims of violence), these two regions constitute the part of the world with the highest level of violence against women (REFELA 2018 report).

To better identify the extent of such violence, particularly sexual violence, its variation by age and the main perpetrators involved, here we present some indicators. The countries covered are Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Togo. Data was obtained from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), compiled with the view of determining the types of violence women have experienced, the age at which the violence began, its frequency as well as its perpetrators. We incorporate victims’ testimonials from the GBV West Africa Exposed website to put faces on what could otherwise be anonymous numbers.

In search of reliable data

The major challenge in measuring indicators of violence against women in sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in West Africa, lies in the lack of reliable data.

The reasons are similar to other parts of the world: poor reporting facilities, a persistent culture of victim-blaming and a heavy taboo surrounding sexual abuse. African countries also suffer from imperfect statistical and demographic data system, making what is visible only the tip of the iceberg.

In recent years, the DHS have attempted to gather data to capture the full spectrum of domestic violence in developing countries. Although they generally cover only women of childbearing age (15-49), they produce results that are nationally representative and comparable across countries. However, indicators of violence against women obtained from DHS are not exhaustive across countries.

How prevalent is physical and sexual violence in West Africa?

Built from the DHS Program online data.
STATcompiler, Fourni par l’auteur

As shown in Figure 1, above, some surveys, such as the DHS, calculate indicators that distinguish between strictly physical violence, strictly sexual violence, and violence that is both sexual and physical. But this last category is added to each of the previous two when we are specifically interested in sexual violence or physical violence.

The proportion (%) of women who have experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence in their life is very high in…

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Auteur: Adama Ouedraogo, Enseignant-chercheur, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne