Women’s Rights: Living free from violence, on March 8th and beyond

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Christophe Michel / Hans Lucas by AFP

People around the world are gearing up to celebrate International Women’s Rights Day. For over a century, March 8th has rallied women and allies to demand the right to vote, make decisions about their own bodies, and many other fundamental human rights. Key among these is the right to live free from violence. In honour of Women’s Rights Day this year, let’s take a look at how the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) combats sexual and gender-based violence.

Protecting and promoting women’s rights: one of FIDH’s top priorities.

A key aspect of this work concerns sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)—much of which targets women and girls. Working to uproot SGBV is done through several avenues: encouraging greater access to justice, promoting better medical and psychological care for victims, and educating stakeholders–including FIDH staff—to ensure they are well informed and equipped, to name but a few.

SGBV affects millions of people around the world, particularly women, girls, and gender minorities. It is prevalent in times of conflict For instance, FIDH has documented in several reports:
 the Islamic State’s sex trafficking of Yazidi women and girls ;
 the use of rape as a weapon of war in Sudan.
SGBV in conflict settings was long deemed to be collateral damage, inevitable and inherent to war. FIDH has fought against this defeatist assumption: SGBV constitutes a serious human rights violation and must not be tolerated.

But SGBV is also rampant in times of peace, in everyday life. It is ubiquitous—commonplace to the point of being trivialised in highly patriarchal societies. Nevertheless, awareness and indignation have been growing, and FIDH has contributed to the adoption of frameworks to combat violence against women and girls in both the public and private spheres.

Supporting access to justice for all survivors of sexual and gender-based violence

SGBV thrives thanks to inadequate laws, obstacles to justice, and public officials’ failure to act. Tolerance of abuses favours a climate of impunity, which contributes to the recurrence of these crimes. The vast majority of perpetrators enjoy impunity, while victims do not receive redress. This lack of adequate sanctions is unacceptable. Much of FIDH’s work on SGBV thus focuses on improving access to justice for victims and survivors.

In partnership with its member organisations, FIDH documents violations, supports and represents victims of sexual violence in legal proceedings, advocates for the abolition of discriminatory laws and for the adoption of laws protecting women from violence, and activates regional and international women’s rights protection mechanisms.

Some of FIDH’s most recent work on the issue has been in Côte d’Ivoire, where fact-finding missions were conducted to collect testimonies on barriers to justice and other services to support survivors of SGBV. It was found that few survivors manage to denounce the sexual violence suffered; in addition to the fear of stigmatisation and community pressure to settle informally, there are many obstacles to filing a complaint: the need to provide a medical certificate (for a fee) and poor response by the police.

There are major obstacles to accessing justice; even in documented cases, “proceedings are slow and convictions are rare,” says Drissa Bamba, president of the Mouvement ivoirien des droits humains (MIDH). Moreover, survivors face difficulties within the care system: medical, psychological, and social care are not guaranteed. For instance, medical abortion is virtually inaccessible, despite being theoretically permitted in cases of rape. In light of these troubling findings, FIDH and its Ivorian members Ligue Ivoirienne des droits de l’Homme (LIDHO) and MIDH presented recommendations to ministries, the presidency, MPs, national institutions, and Ivorian civil society and hosted a roundtable in Abidjan with key stakeholders and civil society during advocacy missions in December 2021 and March 2022. A report based on the experiences of 31 victims and their families has been published to coincide with 8 March 2022.

Improving access to justice means advocating for better legal frameworks

FIDH and its South African member organisation, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), contributed to a huge stride in combating sexual violence in Africa: the adoption of the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights’ Guidelines on Combating Sexual Violence and its Consequences, in 2017. FIDH and LHR took part in developing these groundbreaking guidelines, which provide specific proposals for countries to work towards eliminating sexual violence. The text is aligned with some of the most progressive standards in the fight against sexual violence, such as on the age of the sexual consent.

Pushing for legislative changes has led to concrete victories, including the Tunisian parliament’s historic adoption of a law taking major measures against sexual violence. The law tackles both violence in the public sphere and the family sphere and established a broad definition of violence, including not just physical aggression, but also economic, sexual, political and psychological violence. FIDH, alongside the Civil Society Coalition for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls, worked tirelessly for this law, drafting and presenting amendments to problematic articles prior to the final push before the vote.

Sharing experiences: the power of litigation

At the end of 2019, FIDH published a collection of articles on the Impact of Litigation on Combating Sexual Violence and its Consequences in Africa. This compendium, written by lawyers, experts, and activists from several countries (Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, Sudan, Kenya, Guinea, Liberia) shares experiences with litigation carried out for, and by, victims of sexual violence, outlines the results and challenges of this form of action, and offers tangible recommendations.

Such litigation actions—several of which have been carried out by FIDH, its members, and partners—may lead to victories through emblematic convictions, supporting victims in speaking out, or even legislative change. The case of Meriem Ben Mohamed is emblematic in this regard. The report was accompanied by a short video, viewed nearly 100,000 times on Twitter and Facebook, in which she describes the trial’s impact on her life.

Spreading knowledge to address and eradicate sexual and gender-based violence

Despite the widespread nature of SGBV, few victims receive the protection, recognition, or justice they need. To better address and eradicate SGBV, we must understand it. FIDH has spearheaded numerous efforts on this front, including a webinar featuring innovative initiatives addressing domestic violence in the context of the covid-19 pandemic and a report issuing recommendations for the International Criminal Court and States to better support victims and adopt a gender perspective in investigations and prosecutions.

FIDH has also developed a resource to explain key terminology on SGBV: a multilingual glossary to inform the work of researchers, legal professionals, advocates, journalists, and others for whom understanding the relevant language is vital to their work of supporting victims and documenting, reporting, raising awareness of and litigating such violence. This indispensable tool is now available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, Russian, and Spanish. By making this resource widely available, FIDH seeks to reduce the persistent under documentation, under-investigation, and under-prosecution of SGBV—a deficiency partly rooted in widespread misunderstanding of what SGBV is, the contexts in which it occurs, and how to interact with survivors.

In 2022, women and girls face countless affronts to their safety, SGBV in all its ugly forms: sexual mutilation, forced marriages, unsafe clandestine abortions, domestic violence, sexual assaults, the list goes on. FIDH will continue fighting for their right to live free from violence, on March 8th. And 9th. And 10th…

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