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#16Days: Protecting the Rights of Women and Girls in the Criminal Justice System

Updated: May 14, 2020

By MaryBeth Bognar, Program Officer

During the #16DaysCampaign in Myanmar, ILF Communications Officer Cherry Suu made sure women and girls know their rights should they ever come into contact with the law. Here she is leaving the office to distribute our Know Your Rights fliers in Mandalay.

Earlier this year, the world watched as Nuril Maknun, an Indonesian woman, was jailed and fined for reporting sexual harassment at work. In the U.S., Tondalao Hall was only just released after serving 15 years for the crimes of her abusive partner. And in Afghanistan, women and girls who are survivors of rape, like our client Brishna, are frequently charged with adultery. As people around the world participate in 16 days of activism against gender-based violence (GBV), these examples demonstrate the many ways in which GBV shows up in the criminal justice system.

GBV is inflicted to maintain power and control, and it disproportionately impacts women and girls.* GBV includes physical, sexual and psychological abuse, sexual harassment, trafficking, stalking, and other forms of violence that are rooted in the power inequalities between men and women. UN Women estimates that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced GBV at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, instead of receiving the support they need, GBV survivors are often punished by the criminal justice system.

Globally, criminal justice systems lack understanding and support for survivors of GBV. For example, survivors of GBV are often charged as accomplices in the crimes of their abusers because they did not report them. But justice systems frequently fail to consider the deep-seated trauma, fear, and intimidation that might keep a survivor silent, or even lead them to participate in a crime (read more about the abuse to prison pipeline). We must do better.

GBV can only end if we address its root causes, and we are allies in this fight. We partner with groups that are working to prevent GBV and offer trauma-informed care. As public defenders, we also strive to be present when and where survivors are most at risk in the criminal justice system. That means reaching women and girls immediately after arrest. It is during those critical first moments that we can intervene to:

Document evidence of abuse: We should always believe survivors, but in a court of law, evidence is critical. Our defense lawyers fight to get survivors of GBV the medical treatment they need and document evidence of abuse.

Protect against further trauma and rights violations: Once inside less visible spaces such as police stations and detention centers, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to abuse. In many countries, including the U.S. as we were recently reminded, “virginity” testing is a common practice. Though the test is a human rights violation with no scientific basis, it is often used after arrest to determine a woman’s “honor” or “trustworthiness” or if she has committed adultery--a crime in some countries. In Afghanistan, where these tests are still used to put women behind bars, we are challenging their admissibility in courts and making sure women and girls know they have a right to refuse and request a lawyer.

Get survivors the support they need: As public defenders, our work goes well beyond the courtroom: GBV survivors may need shelter facilities, counseling, or other assistance to keep them safe and help them heal. This often means connecting with social workers and community organizations. We partner with BEITI Tunisie in Tunisia, for example, to connect GBV survivors with shelter facilities.

The ILF team in Palestine and the Independent Commission for Human Rights visited an all-girls school to provide Know Your Rights training to students and their parents. They also discussed their experiences becoming leaders in the legal profession. 

In some countries, special courts exist to handle cases involving violence against women. In Afghanistan, for example, Elimination of Violence Against Women (EVAW) courts host specially trained judges and prosecutors. It’s still a fight for defense lawyers to get cases transferred into these courts to ensure they will be more appropriately handled. We want to see referral networks strengthened around the world.

We hope to one day live in a world without violence. Until then, we are allies in the fight to eliminate violence against women and will fiercely defend the rights of women and girls in the courtroom, in police stations, and in communities around the world.

*While GBV is discussed here in the context of women and girls, it is important to recognize that GBV can impact members of the LGBTQI+ community as well as boys and men who experience sexual violence given the dynamics of gender and power that underscore these violations.


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