human rights, international development, legal empowerment, public interest law, women's rights

The role of access to justice in combating gender violence

In the worldwide movement to end domestic and gender-based violence, most efforts to combat violence against women and girls fall into two spheres: so-called prevention and response — similar to interventions in other realms, such as the healthcare field.

‘Prevention’ efforts approach gender violence with the idea that breaking down systems of patriarchy and oppression is the ultimate goal, and the root cause of gender violence. If we can disrupt the patriarchal order, we can begin to more effectively reduce and end gender violence. Many prevention efforts seek to change social and cultural norms as an attempt to reduce gender inequity. By changing patriarchal mindsets and attitudes – by shifting culture, which is never static – it may be possible to actually shift society in a more equitable direction. Many campaigns in the prevention realm thus focus on efforts such as: educating communities about domestic and gender-based violence; educating children on sexuality and healthy relationships; empowering women to be stakeholders and political leaders with power; changing unjust laws and policies and implementing better ones; and changing the portrayal of women in ads, mass media, music, and entertainment. Movement building and coalition building can also aid in challenging and changing unjust laws and structures that allow violence to perpetuate.

On the other hand, response is the area I have been largely focused on. As a (hopefully!) soon-to-be attorney, my mind is automatically drawn to solutions targeting the treatment of survivors after they have been abused. After being subject to abuse, are survivors they receiving the legal and social support and services they need? The response considers a holistic response to gender violence: legal aid and access to justice, safe housing, economic support and employment opportunity, childcare, protection by the police and an order of protection, social support and networks, and land/property rights. And on the criminal side, is the perpetrator apprehended, and ideally – rehabilitated?

In many ways, the ‘response’ is a limited solution, though. Response means the system has already failed the survivor at some level — she has been subject to abuse already. It also does not necessarily prevent the violence from being perpetrated again by the same abuser on the same victim/survivor, or a different one. However, research does indicate that access to a lawyer can increase the likelihood of obtaining an order of protection – and that about 86% of women who received a protection order or restraining order state that the abuse greatly reduced or stopped. At the least, then, the ‘response’ has a positive impact by reducing violence for the survivors who receive help; and at the most, taking action may have a deterrence effect on abusers who are prosecuted, experience the consequences of their actions, or obtain therapy/counseling to understand their behavior. In this way, ‘response’ can also be prevention in itself if it is implemented effectively.

The Response: Accessing Justice

Within the spectrum of responsive service delivery for survivors, access to justice is just one of the prongs. But interestingly, in one study comparing numerous social and legal service programs, only legal services was found to significantly reduce a woman’s likelihood of abuse – as noted above, in large part by facilitating the receipt of orders of protection – but also by providing the survivor with assistance on economic matters, thus increasing her financial stability and independence. Access to justice, then, has a measurable impact. It may not end domestic violence, but plays a vital role in ending domestic violence for survivors and may pay dividends to the extent that it can also increase defendant accountability.

The “justice” component really has two prongs:  civil and criminal.  Access to civil legal services can aid the survivor in moving forward and healing, and prevent further violence against her.  The criminal justice response, however, focuses largely on preventing the perpetrator from committing abuse again — and may have a broader deterrent effect, at the optimistic end.

Will access to justice end domestic violence in the world? Probably not; these efforts will need to be supplemented by the prevention components detailed above. But, can we end domestic violence without access to justice? It seems less likely.

Zooming out to the situation worldwide, there seem to be a few key barriers to effective access to justice, both civil and criminal.

1.  Lack of access to lawyers for the poor:

First, the poor – and survivors of gender-based violence – all too often lack access to a lawyer in civil cases. In the U.S., there is no ‘civil Gideon’ — no right for the poor to access a lawyer in civil cases.    This is the case in much of the world.  This makes access to a lawyer incredibly difficult for the poor, who face numerous — countless — barriers. These include the cost of hiring a lawyer, physical distance to a lawyer’s office or a court, the language barrier – particularly for those who are illiterate, as well as a ‘cultural barrier.’  I have seen firsthand how a survivor of domestic abuse in rural Bangladesh, for example, cannot easily go to an attorney. She faces numerous cultural barriers in that going to court may be seen as inappropriate and as taking a private, family matter ‘outside’ the allowed zone. This, then, becomes insolent behavior to be further punished. There is an informal, mandated culture of silent suffering for survivors of gender violence. In addition to this, lawyers are often seen as highly educated and in a different social class, and thus less relatable for low-income individuals. And finally, many communities utilize customary justice or alternative forms of dispute resolution, and may be unfamiliar with the formal legal institutions in place.

Solutions need to tackle increasing the number of trained lawyers and lawyers providing free services to the poor, and must make it more desirable for lawyers to provide justice for the poor. Currently, this is not a prestigious option in many countries. Incentives must be provided to attract more lawyers to this space – and salaries and job opportunities are key!   The most sustainable solution might be government-funded or subsidized legal aid. Other options are promoting paralegal corps to provide justice services at a lower cost, and in a form far more accessible to communities.

2.  Lack of appropriate laws in place:

But even where the poor have access to a lawyer, the right laws may simply not be in place. In the U.S. it is possible to generally obtain an order of protection, or to obtain sole custody of the children as a woman, or to obtain a divorce and equitable distribution of marital property including title to the marital home. Survivors of sexual assault can, generally, benefit from rape shield laws preventing prosecutors from inquiring into the survivor’s past sexual behavior. And those in a same-sex relationship can generally avail themselves of laws relating to GBV.  There are sexual harassment laws in place protecting one in the workplace.  In certain countries and regions, these laws may not exist. It is not always possible to obtain title to the marital home and avoid homelessness, or to shield inquiry into past sexual history. Marital rape remains legal in much of the world.  In such a situation, the just laws must be in place for access to justice to become a reality for survivors.  Without the laws, ‘justice’ is meaningless and in fact, impossible.

3. Systemic barriers in the justice system:

Formal justice systems are often not accessible for the poor due to systemic barriers — even if a survivor obtains a lawyer.  A single case can take years, even decades in an inefficient justice system with backlogs of thousands of cases.   Case backlogs may sound innocuous and technical, but they can be incredibly dangerous in allowing injustice to perpetuate.   Reports have documented that individuals are kept in pretrial detention for 10 or 15+ years, often because of inefficiencies and backlogs in the justice sector.  In addition, judges may not be well trained on the law, or may harbor patriarchal biases themselves. Finally, corruption in the system often prevents the poor from moving forward with their case, and contributes to backlogs.

4. Systemic barriers in police accountability:

Finally, prosecution or enforcing a restraining order can be effective only with the assistance of the police. In many places, police accountability and effectiveness is limited. The reasons are numerous: the police as an institution are often underfunded and lack the resources to track down offenders and implement the law, particularly in poor countries; the police may have poor training on dealing with gender violence cases; the police themselves may harbor patriarchal biases against intervening in gender violence cases; and the police may also be corrupt – sometimes a consequence of poor salary and support from the institution.  Without the help of the police, it can be near impossible to enforce the law and keep survivors safe. What is the solution? This one is a bit harder; it might require a combination of funding and training — and governments simply need to make it a priority to well-equip police to fight crime. More female police officers may also be a small part of the solution.

Ultimately, if these 4 barriers are addressed, access to justice can become much more a reality, even for poor survivors of gender-based violence.  While improving access to justice will not end violence, if it is implemented effectively, it can reduce it for survivors and may have a deterrence effect that is felt throughout society.

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