Violence against women remains one of the greatest scourges of our time. It is disgraceful that even today, for many women and girls everywhere, violence is lurking around street corners, in workplaces or in their very own homes. And too often, justice is elusive.
In Busia, Kenya, in June this year, a 16-year-old girl was gang-raped and thrown into a six-metre-deep pit latrine, breaking her back and leaving her with obstetric fistula. Police chose not to prosecute the men, instead ordering them to cut grass around the police station as punishment. The news unleashed a rare outpouring of public indignation and a petition was signed by 1.4 million people. The “Justice for Liz” campaign led the Chief Justice of Kenya to call for immediate action in the case.
Why did it take agitation by 1.4 million people to begin the process of justice which is the victim’s fundamental human right?
Halfway around the world, in Auckland, New Zealand, when a 13-year-old girl had gone to the police to report that she had been raped by three young men, one of the first questions she was reportedly asked was: “What were you wearing”. This was in 2011. Two years later, after many similar attacks by the same gang, it took a public exposé to rattle the authorities into action. The Independent Police Conduct Authority of New Zealand has been ordered to look into the handling of these cases and police are now finally conducting the investigations they should have begun two years ago.
Sadly, these are not isolated cases. Such crimes occur on a daily basis in countries across the world, but they rarely make headlines or lead to public outrage and action by high-level officials. In most parts of the world, women are too ashamed or fearful to report violence, particularly sexual violence, to the police. And when they overcome various societal barriers and taboos to file a complaint, they are all too often met with callous, insensitive official reactions, effectively blocking all access to justice.
Violence against women and girls has been perpetuated by centuries of male dominance and gender-based discrimination. Building on deeply entrenched social norms that frame women’s worth around discriminatory notions of chastity and “honour”, violence is often used to control and humiliate not only the victims, but also their families and communities. It is essential to challenge such notions, which often permeate the justice system itself, resulting in a vicious cycle of impunity and further violence.
The UN Committee on the Elimination on Discrimination against Women and the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women have been documenting violence against women, its causes and consequences in all parts of the world and recommending measures to eliminate such violence and to remedy its consequences. These recommendations must be taken seriously. States are obliged by international human rights law to ensure that the criminal justice system, at every stage, is free of gender bias, including in investigation, prosecution, interrogation and protection of victims and witnesses, and in sentencing.
The suggestion that women have a propensity to lie and that their testimony must be corroborated or treated with caution should be eliminated from every level of the judicial process, as must the idea that women invite sexual violence by being out late or by dressing in a particular manner.
On this International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, let us do our part to eliminate the harmful gender stereotypes that help perpetuate a climate where violence against women is considered acceptable or “deserved”. Violence is simply and totally unacceptable – no matter what she was wearing.
Navi Pillay is the UN Human Rights Commissioner