Dakar - In the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, fighting continues long after battlefields empty and rebel fighters kick off their boots, according to a report released on Tuesday by the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
When conflicts fought along political or ethnic lines come to an end, the report, Let Me Not Die Before My Time, says it is women who bear the brunt of post-conflict violence, often subject to physical and emotional abuse in their homes at the hands of husbands who became accustomed to patterns of violence during war.
Heidi Lehmann, who directs the IRC's global women's protection and empowerment programmes, said more than 60% of women who come to the IRC in West Africa after experiencing violence say they have been abused by the men they married.
"In most cases it is not strangers who commit the violence, it is a partner or spouse," Lehmann said.
She called the violence "alarming", citing cases in which women had their fingers hacked off or were locked in their homes, which were then set alight.
The group's president, George Rupp, said focusing on conflict areas in the aftermath of war is crucial.
"When fighting ends and fighters from both sides return home, there is a danger that some of the patterns that were developed during conflict, wind up getting continued," Rupp said.
He said the IRC has witnessed a spike in domestic violence after the end of West Africa's conflicts.
"That means we have to recognise that domestic violence is a major humanitarian issue in the immediate post-conflict period," he said.
Among those affected was a 21-year-old woman living in the slum of Westpoint, in Liberia's capital Monrovia.
Fear of judgement
"My husband said, 'You are going to feel pain tonight'," the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told the IRC.
"I said, 'What kind of pain?' ... while talking, he grabbed a machete and started chopping. He brought the machete straight on my face. And when I held my hand [up], he chopped my fingers," she said.
After being brought to a clinic and eventually recovering, the woman pursued justice. But her husband was only jailed temporarily, and has since been released.
Although domestic violence has recently been criminalised in Sierra Leone, no laws have ever been passed on it in Liberia and Ivory Coast.
Many women remain silent about being beaten by their husbands, for fear of judgement within their communities.
"Few women talk about domestic violence with friends and family, and without community support, the majority of women never come into contact with the formal justice system," added Lehmann.
"Those who do, express deep frustration that the courts and the police do not meet their needs for justice, for protection and for assistance," she said. "In the best scenario, they will be stuck in a lengthy legal proceeding that they cannot afford."
Although Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has spoken publicly about the shame she felt after being physically abused in her own marriage, many Liberian women say they do not have the funds to leave abusive relationships.
Absence of justice systems
"My husband was giving me a hard time," Hawa, a 27-year-old woman from northern Liberia, told dpa by telephone. "He was beating me. It was physical abuse. But he said he didn't want the relationship to end."
Hawa ultimately walked away from the marriage after becoming friends with a woman who worked for a legal aid group.
"That gave me the strength and resources to enable me to take the case to court, free of charge, and my husband and I finally parted. Six months on, I'm doing fine, but was unable to claim back most of my belongings," she said.
The IRC is calling for greater emphasis on domestic violence issues internationally and for specific programmes to be designed according to the wishes of survivors.
In the absence of justice systems equipped to deal with the cases of affected women, many are taking matters into their own hands.
"With the help of local NGOs, we're starting businesses - such as gardening and soap-making - that empower us, so we don't have to ask our men, 'Can you give us food money?'," a woman living in northern Liberia told the IRC.
"Money is the answer to everything. Before they were just controlling us, but now we can earn our own money. We can make our own decisions with the money we have," she said.