Training first responders to stop sexual violence

by Vesna Jaksic Lowe
Thursday, 1 October 2015 11:59 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Training medical professionals, police officers and judges is key in stopping sexual violence

Justin Nyakundi Nyatete, a police officer in Nakuru, Kenya, said he was specifically trained to talk to victims of sexual violence. So when he worked on a case involving a five-year-old victim last year, he knew how to speak with her and her parents, and understood how to collect the right evidence.

“I managed to convince them that we have a case, and said, ‘Kindly allow me to take these clothes for a DNA sample,’” he recalled. “I was able to build a case.”

He collected her clothes and took them to the government chemist for testing, and the case made its way to court.

Lack of evidence is a major reason why many sexual violence cases don’t lead to successful prosecutions. A new report by the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley School of Law found that greater support and training is needed for police and other sectors that play a crucial role in collecting, preserving, and presenting the evidence.

The Berkeley study points out that accountability for international sexual violence crimes largely depends on national authorities, and presents several recommendations, including, significantly, more training for health care providers and police units.

Through the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), we have been tackling this challenge in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By training medical professionals who treat sexual violence survivors, police officers who investigate their cases, and judges who oversee them, we hope to break the vicious cycle of sexual violence.

Building capacity among these first responders locally and forging relationships between their sectors is crucial for helping survivors bring their cases to court.

Nyatete is one among a number of police officers with whom we have worked, in addition to the doctors and judges who also participate in our trainings.

Dr. Justus Malowa Nondi, who worked at a hospital in Nakuru, said PHR’s pediatric-focused training taught him how to talk to young victims. When he had to question a young girl during her medical exam, he knew to be patient and take time in-between questioning sessions.

The training helped him determine that she had been coached to lie and say that she fell and injured herself in an accident before later revealing she was actually a victim of a sexual crime. His medical report helped substantiate her injuries.

At Rift Valley Provincial General Hospital, where Nondi was based at the time, about 60 percent of the approximately 40 to 50 sexual violence cases he saw in a given month affected children between the ages of 2 and 11 years; learning how to get information from young victims was crucial, he said. He now regularly documents evidence of sexual violence among his patients and presents it in court.

“My colleagues at the hospital call me ‘the hospital lawyer,’” he said, smiling.

The Berkeley study emphasizes that the “health sector plays a crucial role in the collection of evidence,” but that many health workers don’t have an “evidence-collection” mandate. PHR also recognizes this major need and has been conducting trainings in the region since 2011.

The judges with whom we work say they are seeing progress among those doctors who have been trained in evidence collection. In particular, the way they present their findings has improved, as they have been taught to submit information using a standard form that non-medical professionals can understand.

“Before I’d see things like 1/3 F and then a line,” said Harrison Adika, a senior magistrate in Kisumu, Kenya, referring to one doctor’s description of an injury involving the femur, the bone of the upper thigh. “And I’m like, ‘Is this a mathematical formula?’”

Even when he understood the information, Adika said the evidence was often distorted or insufficient.

“We have been trained to do what law school taught us – if there is no evidence, we don’t convict; if there is evidence, we convict,” he said.

The new relationships formed between doctors, police officers, and judges have also created partnerships that are getting the wheels of justice moving. Adika and Nyatete said if they cannot understand a medical form or if information is missing, they now know the doctors and can go back to their medical colleagues for more information.

And after meeting with doctors through trainings and networking events, Adika said he is more tolerant when a doctor cannot make it to court, and that he is less likely to dismiss a case as a result. Professionals in the different sectors are no longer working in silos.

“It has become easier to talk to a judge, police officer, and any other person involved,” Nondi said. “I’m also given an opportunity to talk about it more in court. Sometimes the cases would be thrown out because of lack of understanding between two players.”

Still, there is no shortage of challenges. On the medical side, Nondi said he sometimes has to travel as many as 20 miles to court, and finding time and money for that requires personal sacrifices. And for police, Nyatete said other officers rely on him for advice and many more need to be trained, and additional funding is needed for gender units at police stations. After 10 years as an officer, Nyatete notes that cases involving sexual violence are among his most difficult ones, and he hopes more skilled professionals will lead to more justice.

“When you’re taking this case to court, you want justice for the survivor,” he said. “When I take a case to court and the survivor gets justice, it feels so good.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses medicine and science to stop severe human rights violations and mass atrocities. To learn more: www.phr.org.

Vesna Jaksic Lowe is deputy director of communications at Physicians for Human Rights

 

 

 

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