Guaranteeing access to justice for survivors of violence
By Suzanne N’Gouandi, Francophone Communications Officer, and Meganne Boho, President of the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights
Violence against women and girls is one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in the world. Yet, it remains one of the least reported due to the prevailing culture of impunity.
According to the United Nations, violence against women can be defined as: “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” Such forms of violence negatively impact the well-being of women.
Globally, 736 million women – almost one in three – have suffered physical or sexual violence at least once. This issue is even more prevalent in the least developed regions and countries, affecting nearly thirty-seven percent (37%) of girls and women aged 15 to 49. In West Africa, for example, a 2018 report by the Network of Locally-Elected Women of Africa [Réseau des Femmes Élues Locales d'Afrique / REFELA] noted that 40% of women had been victims of violence, rising to 65% in Central Africa. There are nonetheless important regulations and standards in place to put an end to this global scourge.
Women’s right to live in a society free from violence is supported by several international and national conventions. Of particular note, is the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, which provides a framework for international and national action, together with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. National legal frameworks differ from country to country. West African countries such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, for example, have an extensive legislative framework for the protection of women’s and girls’ rights. So why is it that, despite all the legal instruments available, impunity for violence against women and girls persists in the region?
According to EM2030’s SDG Gender Index, sub-Saharan Africa actually slid backwards between 2015 and 2020 in terms of women’s access to justice. This can be explained by a failure to enforce existing laws and the inadequacies of some of those laws. In Senegal, where sexual violence is on the rise, the law criminalizing rape and paedophilia is barely effective. Among the shortcomings of this law, is the lack of psychological and legal care for survivors of violence, who still have to prove that they did not give consent during a sexual assault.
In Burkina Faso, it is estimated that more than one in three women (37%) have been a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime. Although there is a law prohibiting all forms of violence against women and girls, domestic violence is not criminalized.
Adding to this, sociocultural constraints prevent women who have been abused from seeking justice. UN Women estimates that fewer than 40 percent of women who experience violence seek help, and fewer than 10 percent of those who do seek help, call the police. Unfortunately, those who do decide to report their case to the relevant institutions sometimes find that their complaints are rejected, or that their cases go unresolved.
In May 2023, the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights [Ligue Ivoirienne des droits des femmes] used the hashtag #PrenezNosPlaintes [#TakeOurComplaints] to denounce the mistreatment of survivors in police stations. This initiative highlights a painful reality: not only do women victims of violence face stigmatization but they also often encounter indifference from the very institutions that are supposed to protect them.
Faced with this situation, Meganne Boho, President of the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights, stresses the urgent need for better handling of cases of violence: “ Raising victims’ and survivors’ awareness of the need to report is an important step but when they then come up against the failure of the gendarmerie, the police or the justice system to consider their cases, we’re back to square one. The Ministry of Justice must be called upon to effectively deal with cases of violence against women. Women are citizens of this country and deserve justice and reparation when they brave shame and sociocultural constraints to break the silence and the cycle of violence.”
To ensure access to justice for survivors of violence, it is vital to raise awareness and educate our societies on the issue of women’s rights and the legal mechanisms available for bringing these cases to justice. Particular attention needs to be paid not only to strengthening and enforcing existing laws but also to ensuring access to legal aid so that women can benefit from the necessary legal assistance.
Finally, strengthening victim support services, such as reception and listening centres, specialist counsellors and social reintegration programmes, are all essential to help survivors rebuild and recover.