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Barriers to justice for victims and survivors of GBV in the wake of Covid-19

By Nhlanhla Mbele

SIHLE* fled her matrimonial home in Bulawayo’s Mabutweni suburb with her four children to live with her parents in Hope Fountain on the outskirts of Bulawayo. This was after her husband assaulted and threatened to kill her after she refused to have sex with him.

Her husband had mistreated her before. He was violent and two of her pregnancies resulted from forced sex. The violence became worse in April last year after the government introduced the “stay-at-home” order to stop the spread of coronavirus as she found herself shut in with her abuser.

She was determined to have her estranged husband punished for the injuries he inflicted all over her body but at court she was told there could be no criminal prosecution of the case unless she could produce evidence of the abuse. 

She delayed getting a medical report because of strict control of people’s movements which were imposed by the government to contain the spread the Covid-19 virus.

“I know what it’s like to be disregarded and disrespected by the country’s legal system. When I went to court prosecutors decline to pursue my case saying unless I could produce evidence of the abuse, in form of a medical report,” she said.

“This is despite the fact that I had visible scars all over my body. I told them I couldn’t get the medical report on time because of movement restrictions which were imposed by the government to curb the spread of Covid-19,” she added. 

Sihle’s case highlights two of the biggest issues facing women across the country in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic which is the prevalence of domestic violence and the difficulties of getting justice in a legal system stacked against them.

Women who suffered gender-based violence (GBV) struggled to report abuse because both women and organizations working to provide protection and support to women were not seen as an “essential service”.

They also so faced severe restrictions of movement, resulting in them abandoning filing cases.

Another survivor, Sibongile* said violence against women increased because “police don’t take gender-based violence victims seriously enough when they file cases”.

“Instead of taking on the men responsible for the violence and abuse, police always blame women for being victims of sexual violence. Police should be trained on best practices for understanding gender-based violence (GBV), handling complaints, and treating survivors with sensitivity,” she said.

She adds: “This is because victim-blaming compounds the trauma of sexual assault and magnifies stigma and shame. It also deters survivors from coming forward”.

An investigation by CITE revealed a wide range of obstacles being faced by victims and survivors of GBV in getting justice in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

These include mistreatment by authorities, evidentiary challenges, fear of retribution and lack of trust in the criminal justice system and secondary trauma which victims and survivors often suffer at the hands of authorities, including the police and health services when they attempt to report cases.

These barriers came into sharper focus during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. For example, there has been public outrage about the institutional failures to administer justice for women and girls who are victims and survivors of GBV even though the country’s Domestic Violence Act of 2006 explicitly states that victims may lay criminal complaints against offenders.

According to gender activists and human rights advocates, while the law does in fact allow criminal investigations to be opened on the basis of non-physical evidence, prosecutors commonly decline to pursue such cases, a practice which leads to victims and survivors of GBV giving up on justice.

They argued that survivors often face significant obstacles due to gaps in criminal law and procedure, gender stereotypes, victim-blaming and inadequate responses of criminal justice institutions and professionals, leading to secondary victimization.

These include difficulties in filing complaints collectively; a general lack of willingness to prosecute perpetrators; difficulties in gathering evidence, including obtaining medical reports; lack of protection for victims and witnesses.

Gender equality and political activist Sikhululekile Moyo who is also Councillor for Ward 17 in Bulawayo said being confined at home became a real nightmare for female victims and survivors of GBV as they were denied care outright or faced delays getting the services they need.

“When the lockdown started, there was an increase in gender-based violence cases as couples were now spending more time together and generally, problems would arise and would resort to violence to ‘solve’ them.

“However, as a councillor, I was approached by many victims of gender-based violence from my Ward saying they have withdrawn their cases because their complaints were not being taken seriously by authorities,” Cllr Moyo told CITE.

From her observation, it is clear that the COVID-19 crisis has brought the resilience of justice systems into sharp focus. 

According to World Health Organisation (WHO), about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced sexual and other forms of violence. Women are also much more likely than men to be killed by their intimate partners or family members.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has further reduced access to essential police and justice services for women, despite reports of increased levels of GBV.

Investigations by CITE have also established that violence and discrimination against women are still accepted practices in the country, as evidenced by how officials in the administration of justice systems respond to women victims of violence and handle their cases.  

Legal advisor and human rights defender Cephas Lionel Mpofu said there was a tendency to regard cases of GBV as domestic disputes that would be better settled without the State’s intervention.

“It is quite disturbing that women and girls that face gender-based violence are not being taken seriously by authorities. There are always complaints from the victims of gender-based violence when they report the matter to the police especially the Victim Friendly Unit (VFU) that is supposed to assist the victims of gender-based violence whether the perpetrator is a relative or a stranger,” said Mpofu.

He said usually, male police officers pass degrading comments on victims despite having been inducted to show some form of understanding of the victims and act in a civil manner when dealing with the victims and survivors of GBV.

“They are also accused of being biased in their investigations leaving huge gaps that usually lead to the acquittal of perpetrators on technical grounds or lack of evidence. Courts are also not left out in the blame game in the sense that officials are also accused of receiving bribes from the perpetrators,” said Mpofu.

As a remedy, Mpofu said there is a need for VFU to work closely with civil society organisations that protect the rights of women and girls so that they assist with private prosecutions in cases of suspicion of acquittal of a perpetrator on unclear grounds.

Amnesty International also found in its briefing, “Treated like furniture: Gender-Based Violence and COVID-19 response in Southern Africa”, that women and girls who dare to report violence and abuse risk social rejection for failing to conform to gender roles and when they do speak out, their complaints are not taken seriously by authorities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an escalation in gender-based violence against women and girls in Southern Africa. It has also magnified existing structural problems such as poverty, inequality, crime, high unemployment and systematic criminal justice failures,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.

Director of Hope Alive Child Network, an organisation working to promote human and health rights as well to address harmful social norms and practices in communities Patience Dube said the law enforcement and judiciary were not taking cases of GBV seriously.

“We have evidence of cases of women and girls who were sexually abused and the police and prosecutors are trying to conceal one of the cases. Sometimes dockets just disappear with sexual offenders especially relatives bribing their way out of jail.

“It goes without saying that COVID-19 has, however, exposed the inefficiency and ineffective legal system we have in the country. It has in fact further exacerbated the rot and gaps in the legal system especially around the protection of children, women and girls in both rural and peri-urban settings,” said Dube.

She said the government should adopt the Sex Offenders Register as a punitive measure against sex offenders adding that civil society organisations should be fully capacitated to operate during disasters and pandemics.

It is important to note that historically, domestic violence has been viewed as an essentially private, family matter not suitable for aggressive governmental intervention.

Thobekile Sithole, a legal officer with Justice for Children said the measures implemented to combat the COVID-19 pandemic led people to be confined at home, with increased risk of domestic violence due to restriction of movement which made it difficult for victims to receive help.

“I, however, believe that some of the police are taking GBV cases seriously and this is evidenced by the existence of the Victim Friendly Unit at most police stations. This also applies to other authorities but because of the frequency of the cases not all cases are treated with the same seriousness and are trivialised,” she said. 

She, however, said some cultural and societal attitudes held by some police officers or magistrates act as a barrier to GBV cases being dealt with seriously.

As part of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts, UNFPA Zimbabwe is working closely with civil society organizations and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs Community and Small to Medium Enterprises Development (MWACSMED) to ensure the continuation of GBV services during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

*Not real name

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