Lawyers outline challenges in delivery of justice to GBV victimsPublished on: 14/12/2020

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Women during a meeting in Musanze District. Most rural or poor women have difficulties in getting justice for GBV cases due to several challenges which include the culture of silence and ignorance of preserving evidence.

Challenges related to public knowledge and understanding of the law, outdated laws and difficulties in accessing legal counsel are some of the difficulties that most women from poor backgrounds continue to face in their fight to eliminate gender-based violence (GBV), Marie-Louise Mukashema, a Senior Legal Aid Attorney with the Legal Aid Forum (LAF) has said.

LAF is a non-governmental organisation bringing together more than 36 national and international organizations that provide or support legal aid services to the country’s poor and vulnerable population.

Speaking exclusively to The New Times on the challenges that women face in seeking justice in line with this year’s 16 Days of Activism against GBV, Mukashema said that although LAF assisted 209 victims this year, a total of 128,735 people had reached out seeking information related to GBV between January and October this year.

She said that the numbers had peaked during the national lockdown imposed to mitigate the spread of Covid 19.

Ignorance of the law

However, she said that there are still challenges in prosecuting these cases due to the public’s lack of knowledge on how to preserve evidence when it’s still fresh since it can easily be compromised or contaminated.

“Unfortunately, most Rwandans are not aware of the value of preserving evidence and the significant role it plays in court. For instance, some don’t realise that showering can completely erase evidence in particular crimes,” she said.

She said that this can partly be blamed for the rising number of complaints raised by victims regarding court decisions to dismiss cases.

“The law will only be on your side if there is evidence. Without evidence, the suspect will walk free. Our community needs some extensive sensitisation on all issues surrounding evidence in GBV matters,” she said.

It is then that victims or any other person seeking legal aid information put the short code (845) which provides text and audio legal advice paving way for additional calls between the victim and the lawyers.

“When someone seeking legal aid calls this code, they are registered and entered into a call list for the Legal Aid Forum call centre. The lawyers will then call back with advice or will refer the case to the right legal aid providers,” she said.

She says that this was not only done to save people who are vulnerable that have little time and resources, but to also provide them with information, advice and assistance on legal matters.

Outdated law on evidence

Although laws like the ones on Criminal Procedure law and the Penal Code have been revised several times to align them with the constant changing times, the law governing the collection of evidence has not been revised since 2004.

Mukashema says that this means that the courts of law are using an old law to collect evidence but a new one to punish it.

In our line of work, we continue to find fighting GBV using this as one of the laws challenging as it contributes to some of the suspects getting away with their crimes,” she said.

Unregistered children

The failure of some families to register their children in the civil status registry continues to make prosecuting GBV a challenge in some cases related to defilement.

For instance, local authorities are finding it hard to produce documents indicating that a girl who was impregnated by an adult was a minor because there is no record on file indicating her age.

“For you to be able to prosecute the perpetrator for defilement, you must have evidence that she is underage. Her age is a crucial piece of evidence and it can only be proven by the Sector authorities. That becomes impossible if the girl is not registered in the civil status registry,” Mukeshimana explained.

Complicated legal counsel processes

While children’s access to legal counsel is easy and automatic, the story is different for adult victims. That means anyone above 18.

Mukeshimana said that while criminal and civil procedure laws exempt minors from court fees, adult victims of GBV are not catered for. She explained that this means that if the victim goes to court she is required to pay court fees or produce a certificate proving that she is too poor to afford it.

She explains that unfortunately in cases of GBV, a married victim may not be in that category but may also not be able to pay the court fees since the family assets and income are all regulated by her abuser.

However, Mukeshimana said that as these challenges continue, the Legal Aid Forum continues to pay court fees for those who want to file cases and in some cases, provide professional court bailiffs to victims in need.

Reacting to this, Annette Mukiga, a Gender and Development Specialist, said that requesting victims to pay legal fees discourages victims from reporting.

“This is mostly problematic especially because most of the female victims are financially dependent on men. We already have challenges in the area of access to justice and legal aid but these charges will definitely take us a few steps back,” she said.

Culture of silence

Mukashema touched on the ‘culture of silence’ which she said plays a big role in protecting a suspect instead of the victim.

She said communal ties where people fear retaliation if they speak and poverty where in some cases the suspect is supporting the young mother and her family, continue to force communities into silence over serious issues like teenage pregnancies.

She called for the law to swing into action and hold those who are silent when cases related to GBV are being committed accountable.

“If people knew that this is something that is punishable by the law, they would not keep silent. Perpetrators of these crimes should be produced in court together with those who knew that this crime was being committed and kept silent. This will stop this culture of silence,” she said.

MP Suzanne Mukayijore, a member of the Rwanda Parliamentary Network on Population and Development agrees, saying that speaking up is still a challenge in Rwandan society, especially in rural areas.

She pointed out that holding families and society accountable will significantly contribute to changing the status quo.

“These people are well known to their societies but no one is willing to speak up. Families keep silent, neighbours follow suit and, in the end, you have a society that is covering up for people who, in some circumstances, end up being repeat offenders,” she said.

16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence is an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls.

The campaign runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day.

The 2020 global theme is, “Orange the World: Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!”

Source : The New times
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