Just because a law exists doesn’t mean it is applied. As I finish reading the Court Watch project report drafted by two of our volunteers in Ghana, I could add this to the list of reasons why advancing access to justice for women and girls is a vital focus of intervention for Crossroads International.
Even though the Domestic Violence Act (DVA) was passed in 2007 in Ghana, the first court watch we conducted in 2012 already showed that the law was not used because the victims or those who were supposed to implement the law were not aware of it. The second court watch, launched in 2017, showed that only 22.5% of the 280 cases of gender-based and domestic violence observed were completed. It’s still far from being enough, but it’s an improvement on what we have witnessed in the past. Nevertheless, the team of 10 local and Canadian observers who worked on this project came to an unequivocal conclusion after spending their days hearing terrible stories in which the victims could be as young as 5 years old: the DVA is still little used in court. Although they witnessed an evolution in people’s mindset and a real desire for more transparency and improvement in the way the cases of violence against women are handled, the insufficient number of trained police officers and the ignorance of the law among the public and some police officers or court officials led to uncertain application of the law. In addition to this alarming observation, the observers also shed light on the many challenges awaiting victims of violence to access justice. Often faced with prejudice and treated like the guilty party, the fight for justice is not an easy one for victims of violence. By identifying the issues surrounding the application of the DVA and offering recommendations, the Court Watch initiative is an important step toward improving access to justice for women and girls.
Unfortunately, this situation is not unique, and the same observations could be made in other countries where we work. That’s why the approaches we are implementing with our partners to advance justice for victims of violence are crucial. Since last year in Tanzania, we’ve been supporting a partnership among volunteers from the Ontarian legal system, our Tanzanian partner KWIECO and representatives from the Kilimanjaro Justice Court. Through several mandates in Toronto and Moshi, Canadian lawyers, magistrates and gender experts specialized in supporting victims have been working hand in hand with Tanzanian police officers, prosecutors, lawyers and welfare officers to exchange knowledge, skills and tools to support Tanzanian victims of violence in their quest for justice as well as to strengthen the Kilimanjaro Justice Court. This exchange aims to have a positive impact on the Kilimanjaro Justice Court and create a more coordinated legal system that could become an example in the country.
As mentioned in the Court Watch report and equally true in many countries where we work, there is a real lack of knowledge and resources available when it comes to women’s rights. For many reasons including the damaging weight of cultural norms, many victims don’t know their rights. It is therefore essential to raise women’s and girls’ awareness of their rights so they can assert them when needed. It is what our Legal Literacy volunteers do by working with women so they have a better knowledge of their rights and access to legal services. In our Girls’ Empowerment Clubs, girls also learn about their rights and how to assert them. For women and girls, knowing their rights is the first step toward equality.
I would like to recognize and applaud the work our partners and our volunteers are doing to address the underlying causes of gender-based violence as well as the systemic barriers to justice facing survivors. Their passion for justice and women’s rights is inspiring, and their achievements show that by working together we can implement approaches that will help the justice system account for and respond to the needs of women and children.