I have just returned from Tanzania to meet with our partners for the first time. Our discussions were frank, informative and, at times, difficult to hear. Yet I return with a sense of hope.
The context and magnitude of the challenge of gender violence in Tanzania was startling. While Canada is not immune to issues of systemic violence, the absence of the sort of basic societal structures and policy responses in Tanzania that Canadians take for granted was alarming
That is why it was so moving to see Crossroads volunteers with direct experience in the Canadian system — a judge of the only Canadian Domestic Violence Integrated Court, a Crown Attorney and a manager of the Victim and Witness Services from Toronto — working with our partners KWIECO, police officers, justice officials and policy makers to share knowledge and provide training in systemic responses to gender-based violence cases in the court system.
One of the first questions volunteers asked shelter staff concerned the first steps when a woman who is a victim of violence presents herself. Are the police called? This is a reasonable assumption, yet it underscores the many gaps in access to justice for women. Even where there is goodwill, there may not be adequate resources. For instance, police often will not answer a distress call without having the cost of the fuel to take victims to safety paid for!
This is not the least of roadblocks that await victims of violence seeking justice. Public confidence in police response is low. The place of paralegals in the justice system – among the key actors in the pursuit of justice for women – is fragile. They are not recognized by the Ministry of Justice in Tanzania. Cultural assumptions and traditions continue to be a challenge. All of this at a time when up to 40% of all public legal cases in the Kilimanjaro region are gender violence cases.
Yet I returned to Canada with great hope and determination to do more. There is demonstrable progress. Women are better informed about their rights and are better positioned to demand justice. There is greater awareness of gender-based violence generally throughout the community. In addition, paralegals are coming into the communities once a week to provide consultations. Change is being made and there is a shift in thinking.
Crossroads and its partners are at the forefront of this change. The Access to Justice Program in Ghana and now Tanzania is inspiring. And with support from the Government of Canada’s volunteer cooperation program, information and expertise is being shared and adapted to the local context in each of the countries where we are active. The model could have an unprecedented impact on women’s access to justice and equality across regions and countries and we need to do more.
Ending gender-based violence requires a holistic approach. More supports are needed for psychological support, where there is a clear need especially for children who have experienced or witnessed violence and access to health care, since hospitals are often far from the community so it is difficult to get evidence of assault.
Change can be painfully slow for a woman and her child staying in a remote shelter wondering if wounds can heal and justice will ever be realized. But change can, and does happen. Rights awareness and demands for access to justice are growing and as it does violence will ultimately be reduced and rights will be realized. With the collaboration of volunteers and donors, Crossroads will continue to seek that justice alongside our partners and the women and girls they serve.