Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

AFRICA: Developing Stronger Protection Against Gender-Based Violence

Joyce Mulama

NAIROBI, Apr 18 2009 (IPS) - When heads of districts describe efforts to fight sexual violence as a waste of resources, it raises questions about the leadership’s commitment to deal with the matter.

Such is the situation in northern Uganda where district commissioners, have dismissed sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as non-existent, asking that donor funds for psychosocial support for survivors of SGBV be directed to other sectors.

"They say we are wasting money and that it should go to building roads, and schools destroyed during the war instead. These are government representatives in the districts. What they are telling us is that SGBV is not important, while women and girls have been severely affected by the war," Betty Akulu of the Women and Rural Development Network (WORUDNET) in the northern Ugandan district of Pader told IPS.

Pader is one of the worst affected districts by the 20-year old conflict between government forces and Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, where forces from the two sides have been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians. Women and girls have been beaten, raped and maimed. "You find many of them with their mouths and limbs cut, and even eyes gouged out," Akulu noted.

Though no definitive figures of the number of violations have been collected, Human Rights Watch says abuses were widespread particularly during the peak of the war, and continue even after the war has subsided in recent years.

A regional programme seeking to chart ways of jointly addressing gender violence in conflict and post-conflict situations in five countries has been launched by the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD).

The Regional Gender Programme targets five countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Gender and human rights experts from these countries met in Nairobi Apr. 7-8 under the theme "The hidden war crimes: challenging the impunity for sexual and gender-based violence in the Great Lakes Region" with a view to exploring how to address gaps in the fight against SGBV in the region.

"We want to conduct an audit to establish the state of play on legislation, the health sector, the police, in terms of handling matters of violence against women. We are saying this is a societal issue and we must target all sectors in order to end this problem successfully," said Awino Okech, ACORD’s Gender and Conflict Thematic Manager.

What is clear is that while some of these nations have legislation explicitly outlawing SGBV, these laws are not working. Marie-Josée Bimansha, the only female judge presiding over the High Court of DRC attributes this to a severe lack of operational funds.

"The courts have practically no budget from the state. We cannot conduct our own investigations because we have no funds to do so. We have to wait for evidence from the police, and you know most of them are men and some do not believe there is rape," she told IPS.

Rape in DRC carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment, and if a victim dies as a result of the crime, it becomes a capital offence. But Bimansha, who is also the president of National Association of Women Judges of DRC noted that because of a lack of funds for investigations and therefore lack of evidence on their part, fewer cases are convicted and sentenced. Worse still, perpetrators are convicted on lesser charges.

Rape cases are widespread in the country. Of the 10 files she receives weekly, five deal with rape. Fighting between government forces and rebels has been escalating in the volatile provinces of North and South Kivu provinces of eastern DRC since last year, displacing over 250,000 people. A 2008 United Nations survey indicates that 55 percent of displaced women experienced sexual violence.

In addition to the failure of the justice system to protect women, rape survivors receive little help from the health system. Many public health facilities in the country are ill-equipped with Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP), a short term antiretroviral treatment that reduces the likelihood of HIV infection after potential exposure to the disease. This is despite the requirement by the World Health Organisation that countries ensure PEP forms part of a comprehensive health service delivery plan.

In Northern Uganda’s Pader district, where 300 of the 412 gender-based violence cases reported last year dealt witht rape, survivors are unable to access PEP, not because it is unavailable, but due to lack of qualified medical personnel to administer the therapy, according to WORUDNET.

"PEP could be available at health units, but when we refer the survivors there for medication, they find no one to help them. There is a shortage of doctors here because many of them do not want to work in remote areas like Pader," Akulu said.

It is feared that the shortage of qualified medical personnel to examine and treat rape survivors may deny them vital supporting evidence should they take their cases to court.

The experts who met in Nairobi are documenting these systemic failures and compiling reliable statistics from their countries. Once completed, this information will be used as an advocacy tool to press policy makers for reforms in areas that are key to tackling SGBV.

The ACORD initiative is also targeting change from below. A programme called Agents of Change is focusing on transforming cultural attitudes in Burundi.

A 12 year civil war between Tutsi minority and Hutu majority has resulted in atrocities including massive numbers of rapes. Lucie Nyamarushwa, previously worked with the human rights organisation ITEKA (the Kirundi word for dignity); she noted that in five years of work with ITEKA, they documented more than 1,500 rape cases each year.

"Addressing SGBV starts with changing attitudes at the household level. You start by telling your own children while young that both women and men, girls and boys deserve respect. And this teaching will live with them for ever,"said Nyamarushwa, who is now with ACORD- Burundi.

The Agents for Change programme, presently a pilot project in five provinces of Burundi, involves couples who are trained to spread anti-SGBV messages to their households, each couple trying to reach at least 10 people, who will in turn act as "agents of change" for 10 others in the extended family, spreading a message against gender violence through the community at large.

In keeping with the ACORD's overall intent with the Regional Gender Programme, the Agents project is also investigating specific cultural practices that promote gender violence.

By assembling comprehensive data and research on SGBV in these five countries, ACORD hopes to end impunity for gender-based crimes and strengthen protection for women and girls at the local, national and regional levels.

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