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Mozambique: The female force policing violence against women

Mozambican women force against violence   -  
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An angry husband grabs his wife and raises his fist to strike her.

But the gesture isn't real -- the man is a participant in a training exercise, and in this drill he's been stopped by two women dressed in traditional skirts who volunteer for a Mozambican police unit.

It's part of a scheme designed to educate women in a remote region of central Mozambique about gender-based violence.

The project seeks to change perceptions in a country where half of all women are married before they are 18 and, according to UN figures, more than one woman in five has suffered violence.

The sense of helplessness among victims is pervasive, for few ever file charges.

Eighteen-year-old Fatima is a survivor who was forced into a marriage at age 15.

"My husband beat me but my mother told me to stay," she said, shyly. She was able to leave when her husband was finally jailed.

In 2009, a law was introduced to punish violence against women, but implementation has been slow, especially in remote areas.

Every one of the trainees enrolled in the scheme in Manhene village in Manica district said they had been attacked.

- Talk and the law -

The project is part of an effort by the community to change things, using a mix of verbal dissuasion and awareness programmes backed by the power of the law.

Since 2011, a civilian policing unit made up entirely of women -- originally set up to search female suspects and if necessary arrest them -- has retrained.

It is empowered to arrest offenders in violence against women and detain them while waiting for police to arrive from the nearest town.

But the team's main approach is to talk and dial down the confrontation.

And they say they're having impressive results.

"At first there was a lot of resistance from men. But after 10 years, and lots of talking, explaining and raising awareness, we see less violence," said Elisa Eduardo, the brigade's coordinator.

"Now we only have about one case a month."

Her unit rarely needs to use force. Most conflicts are defused verbally. Their priority is to educate and assist the women, rather than punish their aggressors.

With local authorities poorly trained to settle gender-based violence, three-quarters of Mozambicans resort to community courts to resolve conflicts, according to UNICEF.

Near the community's makeshift jail, a separate room has been set up for victims. Here they can receive care and testify in privacy and safety -- something that was unthinkable not long ago.

- Weight of tradition -

Silence is often the watchword in rural Mozambique. If they dare to complain about the abuse they face at home or on the street, women tend to find little support from their families.

"Before this, they didn't see their abuse as oppression," Eduardo said.

"They thought these bad things were because of tradition."

The volunteer force receives help and financial backing from a local organisation called Lemusica, an acronym from Portuguese words that mean "Get up, woman, and follow your way."

The group also offers shelter to children and teenagers in the regional capital Chimoio.

Lemusica's emphasis is on education and emancipation -- but this sometimes meets resistance in rural villages.

"The patriarchal system teaches us that women have no voice, no power to make decisions and that they have nothing important to do in their lives," said Achia Anaiva, Lemusica's president."

In this traditional society, views such as hers are a challenge for some men.

Vasco Filip, an adviser to the local chief, says the all-woman policing unit "are good for searching other women, because women can hide stolen objects in places where men can't look."

"Yes, there is some violence," he said.

"But there's also the psychological violence of women against men."

Such conversations are difficult, Anaiva admitted.

With her Afro hairstyle, elegant clothes, and forthright feminist approach, Anaiva stands out when she visits the villages.

But when residents jibe that she's a city girl importing Western ideas, she reminds them of the law banning violence against women.

"Lemusica didn't make that law. The (National) Assembly voted it," she said.

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