Zero tolerance or zero consequence?

Laudable yet formalistic plans, committees and laws have been put in place to address violence against women, yet impunity remains rampant. Should the measure of progress be more mechanisms or less violence ?

Letitia Anderson Pablo Castillo Diaz
15 March 2010

At one of the many crowded but colorful side events of this year’s session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), a representative of Liberia’s Gender Ministry chose to display a picture worth the proverbial thousand words. The picture showed a member of the Liberian National Police paying for a ride with a motorcycle cabbie to go in search of a suspect. This simple image seemed to depict a widening chasm between words and reality. Though always part of policymaking, this has become a particularly acute feature of efforts to address violence against women during and in the wake of war. At CSW in New York, several events on the subject painted an almost picture-perfect world for women – not because violence has diminished, but because laudable yet formalistic plans, committees and laws have been put in place. 

Take Liberia, for example. Liberia has several women in positions of leadership, including the first African woman head of state, as well as the Minister of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Commerce, Agriculture, Youth and Sports, and Gender, many of them committed advocates for women’s rights. It has a national action plan on gender-based violence, and another on Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820, on women, peace and security. It has a national task force on gender-based violence; a joint programme between the government and the United Nations on sexual and gender-based violence; a criminal court that works exclusively on crimes of sexual violence; new laws on rape and domestic relations; a thoroughly vetted security sector; and ubiquitous public information campaigns. Its truth and reconciliation commission heard more testimonies from women than from men. Within the UN mission (UNMIL), there is an office for the gender advisor and a conduct and discipline unit that deals with sexual exploitation and abuse. There is also a high-profile all-female peacekeeping contingent - UNMIL’s Indian Formed Police Unit. And yet, rape is the crime most frequently reported to the Liberian National Police and domestic violence is widely-considered the most prevalent crime, albeit unreported. Impunity is rampant. Zero tolerance may be the message from Monrovia, but there are still zero consequences for perpetrators in the counties. The special criminal court devoted to sexual violence saw only three cases in 2009. And, in a country where sexual violence affected a high percentage of women and girls during the war, less than five percent of abuses reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were sexual crimes against women. This raises a stark question: is the measure of progress more mechanisms or less violence?

A similar case is Sierra Leone. They also have a national action plan on 1325 and 1820, a national commission on gender-based violence, accompanied by a task force, and a national strategy on gender. Six periodic reports have been duly submitted to the committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. In 2007, it reformed its laws against domestic violence and family relations, and it has established 26 Family Support Units in police stations throughout the country to address violence against women and children. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is a woman. However, out of 927 sexual abuse cases reported in Sierra Leone in 2009, there were no convictions; out of 1,543 reported cases of domestic violence, not a single conviction ensued. According to a UN official in Sierra Leone, “by the end of her life span, nearly all Sierra Leonean women will suffer from some form of sexual or gender-based violence.” Again, so many boxes checked, so little traction gained.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has ratified virtually every relevant treaty: against genocide, torture, discrimination against women, the Rome Statute, the Geneva Conventions, their additional protocols. In 2006, the government passed new laws modifying the penal and procedural codes to facilitate the prosecution of sexual violence crimes, and it has created specialized units for that purpose within the national police. The Congo hosts a high number of national and international specialists working on gender-based violence, and has the first-ever Comprehensive Strategy on Combating Sexual Violence for a more cohesive response. Donors have begun to earmark greater amounts of money for programmes related to sexual violence – the US State Department and USAID, for example, claim to have committed or spent more than $100 million dollars to fight sexual violence in Eastern DRC. And yet, prosecutions are rare, sentences even more so and hardly ever enforced, and none of that money is reportedly being used to provide reparations for victims. The story of the Songo Mboyo trial is fairly typical. 78 members of the military were accused of having raped at least 119 women and girls in the village of Songo Mboyo in 2003. Only twelve of them appeared before military justice, and six were convicted. After a month or two, they had all escaped custody. Though the State was condemned in solidum with the perpetrators, the reparations awarded to the victims remain unpaid.

There is a lot of energy invested in encouraging women to speak up, fight back, and report the crimes committed against them. Great effort goes into changing criminal codes, designing compelling plans of action, and establishing specialized police units, gender desks, gender ministries, and a plethora of task forces to address the issue. But perhaps greater attention should be paid to more prosaic, post-legislation activity and such mundane details as the filing system of police stations, the availability of fuel and transport, the existence of paper stocks and photocopiers so that victims are not asked to pay for forms that should be free, functioning prisons, and the many other practical matters that both citizens and police in post-conflict countries cite as everyday impediments.

Such minutiae may not be the stuff of stirring CSW speeches. But hearing it reminds us that laws, plans and policies are not ends in themselves. It reminds us that beyond the comfort of the conference room are millions of women and girls whose lives are still accorded lesser value. Women whose concerns are abandoned as trivial in the face of what powerbrokers see as the greater realities of security, peace and war. To move from zero consequences to zero tolerance, the economic, social and political cost of committing or condoning violence against women must be high enough to render it irrational. Laws, policies and resolutions may be passed in poetry, but they are implemented in prose. It would be refreshing to hear a speaker mention, for example, that the Women and Child Protection Unit of the Congolese National Police in Goma does not have a computer to store data, or that neither Liberia nor the Congo have a forensic pathology clinic to handle soft tissue evidence for use in rape trials.

Women who work on these issues sum it up quite simply: men commit violence against women because they can get away with it, and women remain silent because the justice system has proven ineffectual. Granted, corruption and lack of infrastructure affect all crimes, and lack of access to justice affects the rural poor in all countries. But justice reform efforts are overly-focused on delineating standards and creating structures, rather than finding specific and realistic ways to obtain suitable means of transport, office equipment, updated tools of investigation and prosecution, mobile police stations and accessible courts. Gender ministries can only do so much with large portfolios and insignificant budget lines

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that sexual and gender-based violence is the only crime that stigmatizes the victim more than the perpetrator. And it is especially critical in post-conflict countries where sexual violence has been employed as a deliberate tactic to terrorize civilians, for it drastically hampers the ability of women to engage in economic activity or participate in politics, and undermines the country’s prospects of recovery. Advocacy campaigns cannot expect women to break the culture of silence when they see that hundreds and thousands of reported cases yield zero convictions, leaving the perpetrators free to engage in reprisals. We cannot expect women in countries where most live off subsistence farming to travel vast distances and take time off the family plot for a day in court that may deliver law, but rarely justice. Without security, validation and compensation, justice is illusory.

This year marked the 54th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. There are significant strides to celebrate. Yet normative and policy progress is tempered by the sobering reality that more girls were killed in the last 50 years because they were girls than men were killed in all the wars of the 20th century. To change that, we are going to need a great deal more than awareness, laws, and action plans. Commissions and speeches can make themselves useful by bringing snapshots of reality into the realm of high-politics. They should be focused on committing to specific benchmarks and practical solutions, recognizing and incentivizing success stories, and giving women themselves a platform to speak. This can help bridge the chasm between capitals and conferences, and the women who are ostensibly their subject and beneficiaries.



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