Saturday, October 29, 2011

Women & justice in conflict: Beyond rape victims

(Delighted to welcome back alumna Phuong Pham, who contributes this guest post)

Yesterday, the UN Security Council debated ways to strengthen women’s participation and role in conflict prevention and mediation. (photo credit)
Meaningful participation and leadership from women at all stages of the peace process—from prevention to peace building—is key to building inclusive societies and fundamental towards achieving sustainable peace. The work of recent Nobel Peace Prize winners, Sirleaf, Gbowee and Karman, should stand as a powerful testament to the critical role of women in peace building and reconstruction.
During the Security Council meeting Michelle Bachelet (right), the Executive Director of UN Women, stated that the UN will seek to increase post-conflict funding by 15% to support efforts on women empowerment and gender equality. (photo credit)
The UN should take this opportunity to focus on the role of women in bringing a more just and accountable society.
The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo provides a salient example of women’s limited access to justice. In a region that is known as ‘the rape capital of the world,’ there has been encouraging progress over the last decade to ensure that perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence are brought to justice. According to survey data, as many as 1 in 4 women experienced conflict-related sexual violence. In 2010, an astounding 16,000 cases were reported, but still many more have gone unreported. The use of rape as a weapon of war is an abject crime that has been internationally condemned, and women now have more opportunity to report the violence they suffered and see the cases brought to justice. In 2010 alone, based on the UN Development Programme court monitoring data, 3,111 cases of sexual violence were filed in the justice system in North and South Kivu and Ituri. (map credit) A small number of militia and military, including 16 commanders, have been found guilty for sexual violence committed by their troops.
UNDP’s court monitoring program is a powerful tool to hold the justice sector accountable to women. It is part of a larger program to support women’s political, economic, and social empowerment. Police officers, judges, and lawyers have been trained to ensure that crimes of sexual violence are treated adequately and that courts follow fair trials standards that are sensitive to the rights of the victims. Mobile courts, about which IntLawGrrl Kelly Askin has posted, have also been set up to overcome the lack of physical access to courts. Congolese prosecutors have initiated important investigations in cases where brutal violence was committed against civilian women.
Despite this progress, much remains to be done. Increasingly, sexual violence cases are filed in courts. However, the court monitoring work showed that out of the 3,111 cases filed in 2010, by the end of the year, a decision had been obtained only for 305. Civil damages awarded by these decisions remain to be paid to all victims. Research that my colleagues and I have conducted in the Congo also shows that women are less knowledgeable about the Court system, and less likely to have heard about the International Criminal Court, which is currently prosecuting several cases related to the conflict. The results point to the need to do more to reach out to women and to ensure that conflict-related sexual violence is effectively prosecuted and that judicial decisions are executed.
It is equally important to ensure that an adequate response is provided to other forms of violence against women.
An unintended consequence of the single focus on prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence is that there are few resources to assist survivors of other forms of violence against women, including pillaging, beating, abduction, or the killing of a family member, as well as non-conflict-related violence and inequalities. In 2010, sexual and gender-based violence represented about half the decisions in criminal cases in eastern Congo. These crimes must be prosecuted. However, addressing conflict-related sexual violence in isolation of other forms of violence against women will do little to strengthen women’s participation in—and access to—justice.
In effect, the current system may be creating two classes of victims—those who deserve assistance and those who do not; and two classes of crimes—those worthy of investigation and those that are not.
There is an urgent need to consult with women to better understand the role that they see for themselves in rebuilding their country. Strengthening women’s role and access to justice, combating inequalities across all spectrums of civilian life, and acknowledging their role as fully fledged citizens must be seen as fundamental to building inclusive, democratic, and ultimately peaceful societies.

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