Ending violence against women begins with ending impunity

by Holly Burkhalter | International Justice Mission
Tuesday, 24 November 2015 17:56 GMT

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The United Nations has declared November 25 as the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.  The Secretary General’s home page for the day invites the world to hang orange flags, string orange lights and organize “orange marches” to raise awareness about violence against women.  But lack of global awareness isn’t the real issue for vulnerable women and girls.  The real problem is that national governments, development organizations, and UN agencies are not funding initiatives that actually protect them.

There is wide agreement among experts that abuse of women and girls erodes their health and lives and is a significant drag on development in the poorest countries of the world.  Studies by the World Bank, U.N. agencies, and development groups abound with information about sexual assault, domestic violence, child marriage, and trafficking.  The World Bank has estimated that gender-based violence kills and disables more women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 than cancer, traffic accidents, malaria, and war combined. 

But the development community treats gender-based violence as more of a social, cultural phenomenon than a crime.  Thus the vast majority of resources aimed at gender-based violence are for things like community consciousness raising, economic empowerment, girls’ education, street lights, and focus groups.  These are worthy endeavors, but they don’t address the source of gender-based violence: men who abuse hundreds of millions of women and girls with near complete impunity.  

What women and girls in poor countries need to protect them from gender-based violence is the same thing that women in developed countries need and expect: trained law enforcement professionals who will reliably respond to calls for help, who will restrain perpetrators, gather evidence of violent crime, and push prosecutions through local courts.  But criminal justice systems in the developing world, which have never been a development priority, are grossly under-resourced, poorly staffed and equipped, and in many cases virtually non-functioning.  Rich people in poor countries buy their own security.  But for the poor and the majority of the world’s women and girls, there is no substitute for local law enforcement.    

An example of law enforcement as a development tool and an essential source of protection and women’s empowerment can be seen in Uganda.  The crime is “property grabbing,” and its victims are among the world’s most vulnerable women: widows.  International Justice Mission interviewed 1,800 widows in a single Ugandan county, Mukono, and found that 30 percent of them had had their property stolen.  Their neighbors and relatives brutally assaulted, threatened, burned and terrorized them off their land. Their health, their kids’ education, and their livelihoods were destroyed.    

When IJM first began working in Uganda we represented destitute widows in negotiations with the relatives or neighbors who had evicted them their homes and land.  It was an arduous process, but we were usually  able to get our clients’ at least a little of their inheritance.   But negotiations did not assure the widows safety and offered no deterrence at all to local thugs who saw easy pickings all around them.  On the contrary, it may have even incentivized the crime.  Greedy relatives could take two acres and give back one, though legally they were entitled to nothing.  

Four years ago we adopted a different approach:  working with local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of property grabbing.  It took time: the police and courts were unfamiliar with Ugandan law, which actually protects women’s right to inherit.  But our local government partners came to know property grabbing for the violent crime it is and began arresting perpetrators and filing charges against them.  Today Mukono County has 11 police stations with property grabbing desks, model courts with computerized land records and well-trained officials.  Thousands of widows and orphans have been returned to their land, communities see the rule of law at work for women, and property grabbing is becoming less commonplace.    

Interestingly, we still occasionally represent widows in inheritance negotiations.  With effective law enforcement as the backdrop, mediated outcomes for widows are vastly improved, as is their safety and security.  And therein lies a lesson for development experts working on gender-based violence.  Impunity for rapists and assailants is normative in much of the developing world, and it is very much a part of the social and cultural landscape that well-meaning donors seek to change through women’s empowerment initiatives.  Those efforts will be much more successful if there is a rule of law component embedded in them.

The issue of gender-based violence is, thankfully, now firmly on the agenda for governments, development agencies, and donors.  Now it’s time to add the missing elements of justice and protection to the good work of combatting it.