A woman at Dar al-Insania, an NGO-run shelter in the eastern city of Annaba on March 3, 2010. Dar al-Insania provides women victims of domestic violence, among others, with shelter and services. 

© 2010 Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

“Salwa’s” husband started beating her in the early days of their marriage in 2006. She endured the punches until that fateful day in September 2011, when, she said, her husband hung her by the arms to a bar in the ceiling of their house with an iron wire and stripped her naked. He beat her with a broom, then slashed her breasts with scissors.

Bleeding and screaming, Salwa fainted. When she woke up, she was on the floor, freed from the wire. Her sister-in-law hovered over her, trying to wake her and give her something to wear. Then, her sister-in-law opened the door of the house and told Salwa to flee.

Salwa, a mother of two from Annaba, Algeria, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is far from unique. In 2016, Algerian police recorded 8,000 cases of violence against women, half of which involved domestic violence. And, as with Salwa, many cases may not be reported. In a 2006 survey by the State Ministry for the Family and the Status of Women, 9.4 percent of Algerian women between the ages of 19 and 64 who responded said they often – or even daily – experienced physical violence within their family.

The violence Salwa endured is just the beginning of her story. As she tells it, Salwa had to fight her way through Algeria’s justice and social services system for the protection that she should have by right.

Fleeing her home, Salwa ran until she came to a hospital. She was covered with bruises, her face was swollen from her husband’s beatings, and her clothes were bloodied. The police guarding the hospital escorted her inside. At the emergency unit, they gave her first aid, but they told her she could not stay.

Police inaction, insufficient shelter space, and ineffective investigation and prosecution often leave domestic violence survivors in Algeria at risk of further mistreatment despite a new law criminalizing spousal abuse.

The police at the hospital took her to a police station, where she filed a complaint against her husband. She accepted the police’s offer to take her to a shelter. They first took her to a government-run shelter for homeless people. Finding the shelter “overcrowded, not clean,” she asked the police to take her to another shelter, and they took her to one in Annaba that had been set up for battered women and run by a nongovernmental organization.

There, she finally got the help she needed. A doctor or nurse came to the shelter every day for two weeks to change her bandages. She had the time and space for her body to heal.

When she felt physically able to leave the shelter, she went to the police to inquire about her complaint. They told her, “We called your husband, he said you fell and that is why you are bruised.” The police did not investigate her complaint further – they never summoned her husband for interrogation at the station nor did they arrest him, Salwa said. The police told her they were closing the case.

With the help of the group that ran the shelter, she hired a lawyer and filed yet another complaint against her husband for assault. She said that a court eventually sentenced him – but only to a fine and a suspended six-month prison sentence.

She also sought a divorce. Algerian law allows men to file for divorce without providing a reason. Women who seek divorce must cite one or more “legitimate” reasons from a prepared list and convince the court they are well-founded – or agree to repay their dowry.

The first time Salwa filed for divorce, in 2012, she represented herself in court. The court rejected her request, saying she hadn’t adequately proved her husband had “harmed” her. It ordered her to return to her husband.

“The state didn’t do anything for me,” she said. “I was almost dead and the court ordered me to go back to him.”

But Salwa wouldn’t go back. The organization that was helping her provided her with a lawyer. She re-filed for divorce, and a year later the court granted it, also ruling that her children should live with her and ordering her husband to pay financial support. When her husband didn’t pay, she filed a complaint against him. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine, Salwa said, but he went into hiding, and the police said they could not find him.

As of April 2016, Salwa was still living in the shelter. Her family refused to take her in, she said, with her brothers even telling her, “We don’t want divorce in our family, we don’t want you here” – a familiar sentiment in Algeria. Through the organization that was helping her, she had found a part-time job, but she didn’t earn enough to rent an apartment.

When we interviewed her, Salwa was angry and fearful, and worried about protecting her kids. They have no idea where her ex-husband is. She cried as she shared her story. “I don’t want to remember those times,” she said.

In December 2015, Algeria became the first country in North Africa to define some forms of domestic violence as crimes in its penal code. But this is only a first step. The government needs to do more to provide women like Salwa with the protection they need. Algeria’s women need more shelters where women who have suffered domestic abuse can find refuge. The government needs to direct police and prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, and to offer legislation empowering the courts to issue protection orders requiring suspected abusers to keep a distance from their victim.