Just two days earlier, on 24 January, a 45-year-old mother of five, Warda Hafedh was hit three times on the head with a hammer, and stabbed five times in the heart by her spouse, in front of her six-year-old daughter, leading to her death.
These are just two victims among many. Last October, the story of Chaïma, a 19-year-old who was kidnapped, raped, beaten, and burned alive in the small town of Thénia, made headlines. The poignant video of Chaïma’s mother calling on President Abdelmajid Tebboune to order the death penalty against her daughter’s killer gave rise to a debate on the use of social media.
The death penalty is still on the books in Algeria but has been suspended since 1993 following a moratorium. According to local media, President Tebboune called for the application of a “maximum sentence without the possibility of relief or pardon.”
Due to this increase in femicide, the hashtag #WeLostOneOfUs has started trending on Twitter. In Algiers, Béjaïa, Constantine, and Oran, hundreds of women defied pandemic lockdown restrictions to protest and voice their anger over the increase in femicides in the country and the state’s inertia.
Recent statistics from the police, as reported by Algerian media, indicate that more than 7,000 cases of violence against women were recorded in 2018.
According to the only available resource, “feminicides-dz”, a website created by two feminist activists tracking the phenomenon and aimed at making the victims’ faces and stories known, 75 women from all backgrounds and ages (up to 80 years old) died at the hands of their intimate partners, fathers, brothers, brothers-in-law, sons, or strangers in 2019, and another 54 in 2020.
Successive governments have failed on two fronts:
- In making a comprehensive law to enhance women’s protection and prevent domestic violence;
- In providing survivors and their children with adequate support services.
The laws and their flaws
A law in 2015 was put in place criminalising sexual harassment and domestic violence. However, the law applies only to spouses and ex-spouses living in the same or separate residences but does not apply to relatives, unmarried couples, or other members of the household.
According to Article 264, there is a penalty of one to five years in prison and a fine for violent acts that lead to illness or an incapacity to work for more than 15 days. However, a medical certificate is required to prove this, hindering survivors’ access to justice and, by extension, to their perpetrators’ prosecution.
The law does not forbid mediation and reconciliation; moreover, a perpetrator may even receive a reduced sentence or avoid punishment altogether if pardoned by a spouse. There is often considerable social and family pressure on the victim to pardon her attacker and this may dissuade her from seeking court remedies in the future.
The penal code also recognises “crimes of passion,” and Article 279 provides that a person who kills or injures their spouse benefits from mitigating circumstances if their spouse was caught in the act of adultery.
Another obstacle women encounter besides social pressure is poor treatment by the police, who are frequently dismissive, discourage them from filing complaints, and lack due diligence and follow-up when carrying out an investigation (if there is one).
Restraining orders, to protect the victim and improve the prosecution of her case, are not a possibility. There are also no provisions in place to prevent the perpetrator(s) from calling the victim or requiring them to remain a certain distance away from her or even to move out of a shared residence. As a result, the victim can be subject to harassment in the best case and retaliation in the worst.
Finally, while a woman can divorce her husband if he is violent towards her, marital rape is not recognised. The law on domestic violence does not mention it, even though the figures are alarming. A national survey published in 2005 reported that 10.9% of Algerian women interviewed said they had been subjected to forced sexual intercourse by their intimate partners.
Give me shelter
Institutional mechanisms like the Ministry for National Solidarity, Family, and the Status of Women and the National Council for the Family and Women are examples that illustrate the state’s commitment to fulfilling its due diligence to obligations in areas of gender equality and non-discrimination.
Under the ministry’s coordination, in 2007 Algeria launched the National Strategy on Combating Violence Against Women.
The strategy called for creating special units to help survivors of violence find longer-term shelters — without covering the actual establishment of these shelters. At present, there are two national state-run shelters (Bousmail and Mostaganem) and five temporary accommodation centres (Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Skikda, and Ouargla).
As there is no budget explicitly devoted to dealing with gender-based violence, the viability and accessibility of shelters and accommodation centres for female victims of violence remain a major challenge. This seems to be an issue for the broader MENA region as well, as the total number of shelters in Arabic-speaking states does not exceed 50.
In Algeria, this translates into limited and inadequate services such as legal aid, health assistance, psychosocial support, and above all shelters. These services are nearly all provided by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), most of which receive no state support.
Patriarchy and the pandemic
Femicide is a global issue that cuts across borders, cultures, religions, classes, and ages. However, in the “belt of classic patriarchy” of which the MENA region is part, rates of sexual and gender-based violence are continuing to rise, especially since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Algeria is no exception in this regard. Data from the DGSN shows an increase in physical violence (71%) and an upsurge in femicide. In the first two months of 2020, six women were killed by their husbands — and a further 19 from March to October.
The state is implicated in women’s oppression and their reduction to objects of masculine social control. Through this ideological construct, structural and direct violence against women is justified.
The gendering of the private sphere is what makes home a realm outside of the state’s influence and under the regulation of the man. The latter is granted control over the defence of the house’s sanctity and the woman’s body.
As long as this patriarchal view prevails within Algeria’s state and society, it will cast shame and stigma on female victims of violence. Algerian women will continue to be killed, and their perpetrators praised.