This past fall, IJM had the opportunity to participate in the 2020 Women and Girls Africa Summit. This summit offered a chance to connect with leaders and influencers who are invested in the futures of women and girls. The virtual summit allowed for discussion on our work to prevent and respond to violence against women and children, even amidst the pandemic.
Catherine Ajok, a Psychosocial Support Coordinator for IJM Uganda, participated in a panel on Male Engagement in Support of Health, Wellbeing and Empowerment for Women. Part of a lively discussion, she shared her perspective on women’s wellbeing through her work supporting survivors and discussed the necessity of men in the movement. Sharon Cohn Wu, IJM’s Principal Advisor on Violence Against Women & Children also spoke on the topic of Safety and Survival of Women. Read Sharon’s remarks below:
Based on your experience what are core pillars for a good framework to deal with Gender Based Violence?
Sexual violence, physical abuse, human trafficking and intimate partner violence all increase after a disaster on top of the financial, education and health losses. In light of this, and the staggering statistics of violence against women and girls globally, including Africa, what is the necessary framework for response? I like how you framed the question because the response cannot be a standalone pillar, but must be an integrated model that addresses both prevention and response to what has been called a shadow pandemic.
First, there needs to be engagement within a community on the long-held norms that view the girl child as “less-than" which can place obstacles to her flourishing, even before birth. There is good work being done in this area and there needs to be more of it- in the home, in schools, among men, through women-led and school-based programs – such that women and children know their rights and are empowered, supported, and resourced to claim them as individuals and collectively.
This violence prevention work coordinated and resourced must saturate the landscape for effective change. During a crisis and after, it must tell a different story to prevent GBV.
The second pillar is the existence of laws that criminalize violence against women and girls. This alone will not end the violence but is required for there to be effective restraint of aggressors. A 2018 WB study found that “More than one billion women lack legal protection against domestic sexual violence, laws are lacking in more than one in three countries."
The third pillar is access to justice services for women and girls who are experiencing or have experienced violence. There must be an enabling environment that promotes access to a multi-disciplinary response to care – from hotlines to reporting, to health and legal services to economic empowerment opportunities. Without a coordinated and holistic response, women and girls will not participate in the justice system. They will not be willing to bring charges against their aggressor, and they will not have the health and social service provision that they need.
The fourth pillar is the restraint of the aggressor. This requires that the public justice system predictably and efficiently enforce the law in a trauma-informed way, such that those who commit acts of violence against women and girls are held criminally accountable. The performance and capacity of justice system officials must enable and ensure effective law enforcement, serious criminal sanctions, strong judicial sentencing, and enhanced victim protection. In many contexts, this may seem an imprudent investment. The justice system routinely fails and retraumatizes survivors of GBV – and care providers and the community may steer clear of it, But – and I really want to emphasize this -
The organization where I serve, IJM collaborates with justice systems in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The countries where we work have laws against sexual assault of children and violence against women, but like many countries, these legal prohibitions against GBV have virtually no protective impact for women and girls because they are neither known nor enforced.
At IJM we have been partnering with communities and governments for the last 20 years, largely on the 3rd and 4th pillar and we have seen remarkable progress in meaningful protection where once had been an environment of almost complete impunity for those who committed acts of violence against women and girls.
We have learned many things, but I would summarize it this way through two points.
1. Justice systems can improve:
In Guatemala, we partnered with the government over a number of years, and baseline and endline studies were conducted that showed significant improvements in the government's response. Arrests and convictions for sexual assault of children tripled in a four-year period and 98% of cases used victim-friendly spaces for gathering testimonies.
2. Police and prosecutors are willing to investigate and prosecute Intimate Partner Violence even when it is normative:
We worked with authorities in Northern Uganda where IPV rates are very high to pilot a holistic approach that included restraining the aggressor through police interventions and prosecution. What we learned was that while local authorities, as well as the community, often viewed IPV as a family matter, they were willing to move forward with criminal sanction when the violence was particularly egregious when the survivor and family were willing to cooperate with authorities.
What we are continuing to learn and I think what needs greater amplification in gender-based violence space is that response – integrated services for survivors and restraint for offenders – has benefits beyond the survivor and her family. A justice system effectively restraining offenders chips away at the culture of impunity surrounding GBV and over time has a deterrent impact on the rates of violence. With the increased awareness of GBV resulting from the increased rates during COVID, now is the time to demand that we invest in a integrated response that will offer protection for women and girls and deter those who would commit violence against them.
My vision for 2030 is a world where women and girls flourish because they are free to realize their dreams unimpeded by violence.