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Protect Women who Report Violence

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Protect Women who Report Violence

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oday, and on average every day, 137 women were murdered by their partners.[1] International Justice Mission (IJM) calls on national governments, donor nations, global development agencies and civil society to invest in initiatives that provide protection and justice for women and children victimized by domestic violence and sexual assault. The following “Build Back Safer” priorities are informed by IJM’s anti-violence programs in South and Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Women victimized by domestic violence who report crimes to the authorities are at high risk of reprisals from their assailants. All forms of violence against women are under-reported, in part because of fear of reprisals. If victims do report abuses, there is unlikely to be safe shelter for them. The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened their situation, by trapping them in their homes with violent partners.[2]

A recent case in Uganda illustrates the desperation of women who report abuse. IJM’s Uganda office was contacted about a survivor from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who had come to Kampala for work. Her boss was sexually assaulting her, and the woman, whose entire family had been killed by the LRA, had needed a safe place to stay. She reported the abuse to police, but because they had no safe shelter to send her to, she had to sleep in a jail cell.

UN Women cites studies showing that less than 10 percent of domestic violence victims report their abuse to legal, medical or social welfare authorities.[3] Domestic violence accelerates over time: by the time women report the crime, it is likely to have gone on for many years and reached dangerous levels.

An IJM pilot program in northern Uganda generated the following finding about an IPV victim’s decision to report abuse: Each of the women served within the IJM project had experienced violence at the hands of their partners (husband or cohabiting partner) throughout the duration of their relationships; what factors motivated a survivor to report violence as a crime? Factors included escalation in the severity or frequency of violence, fear of death, and the withholding of economic support. Factors discouraging from reporting a case included concern of loss of income from an abusive partner; community stigma regarding bringing a case forward; fear of further violence if the abuser was aware of the report; dissuasion by family members to file a report; and concern that reporting would incur a cost that the survivor or her family could not afford.

National and local authorities must respond rapidly to reports of violence against women and children and provide immediate protection to complainants. In addition to safe, trauma-informed shelter and legal and social services, judicial authorities can and must use protective orders that are monitored and enforced to prevent reprisals against women who report violence at the hands of their partners. That means resources must be allocated to law enforcement to carry out these duties. As IJM’s Uganda staff reported, police who have no gasoline for their cars and motorbikes are not able to do welfare checks or arrest perpetrators who violate protection orders.

Lethality Screening to Assess Danger: UN Women states that an estimated 58 percent of female victims of murder were killed by an intimate partner or member of their own family, amounting to 137 women every day. [4] The murder of a woman at the hands of her partner is virtually always preceded by accelerating acts of violence, sometimes spanning years. Screening for the lethality of assaults can save lives. All those who engage with victims of domestic violence, including first responders, law enforcement, judicial personnel, social service providers, and prosecutors should be trained in assessing lethal danger to survivors of domestic violence. Murder and suicide threats, the presence of firearms, incidents of choking and strangulation, alcohol or drug abuse, and escalating violence are all indicators of extremely dangerous and potentially lethal behavior on the part of the assailant. Engaging a lethality assessment informs authorities of the need for restraint of assailants or robust protection orders, and helps survivors make decisions about their own and their children’s safety. [5]

Restraining Offenders: Because of the danger to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, it is important that suspected perpetrators be arrested following reports of violence and remain in pre-trial detention. This is especially important in places like Uganda where many victims live in huts or structures with no doors, let alone locks for those doors. It is far preferable to remove the abuser from the home than to relocate women and child victims of domestic violence – even if shelters for them were available.

IJM Guatemala, which engages with the justice system on behalf of victims of sexual assault and IPV, has observed that judges are reluctant to keep suspects in pre-trial detention because of the dangers of Covid-19 exposure in jails and prison. In cases of domestic violence, lethality screening should be used to weigh the likelihood of further violence against the danger of Covid-19 exposure for prisoners. If suspects are not detained, the very fact of reporting domestic violence offers no protection and can actually worsen their situation.

Crisis care for survivors: IJM’s 20 years of supporting survivors of violence (including trafficked sexual exploitation, bonded labor, sexual assault and domestic violence) have yielded extensive data on critical aspects for their restoration.

National and local duty bearers and NGO’s that support survivors of violence should prioritize immediate crisis care, including trauma-informed health and legal services, psychological support, and accompaniment throughout the criminal justice process.

A promising approach is seen in comprehensive, multi-disciplinary first response centers at medical clinics, hospitals, and police stations where sexual assault and violence against women and children can be reported, evidence collected, and survivors assisted with medical and legal assistance. This is the approach embraced by the Victims Institute in Guatemala, which launched its first such facility in 2020. The Institute reached out to Guatemalan survivors of sexual assault to inform all aspects of survivor care, case management, and court process. The Institute plans to open such centers throughout Guatemala. The Institute’s emphasis on trauma-informed process will make justice more accessible for women and child victims of violence.

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated job loss, school closings, and stay-at-home orders have made women much more vulnerable to violent partners. A study by UNFPA and academic partners predicted that for every 3 months the lockdown continues, an additional 15 million additional cases of gender-based violence are expected. As national governments, donor nations, international development institutions and civil society rally to combat Covid-19, they must simultaneously take on the pandemic of domestic violence and sexual assault that flourished before Covid-19 and will certainly outlast it.


[1] UNODC

[2] For information on safe shelter, see https://www.endvawnow.org/en/articles/1575-provide-emergency-safe-shelter.html

[3+4] https://www.unwomen.org/en/new...

[6] https://www.unfpa.org/sites/de...

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