On Justice

This article discusses the “snail’s pace” of Ghana’s judicial system, noting in particular that thousands of cases of domestic violence and rape have remained unpunished, leading to “mob justice”.

My only run-in with the judicial system of Ghana, earlier this month, when the case of undocumented refugees was brought to a High Court, actually lead me to believe that the country had a relatively well-functioning system (the word “relatively” is key in this sentence.) While I didn’t agree with the verdict and suspect that the judge was pressured from above, the trial seemed fair, and it took place in a speedy yet thorough fashion. Anyway, obviously, this one case does not provide perfect illustration for the judicial system of Ghana – I am merely trying to highlight the positive.

Billboard in Monrovia


Nonetheless, I’m not surprised that cases of gender-based violence aren’t dealt with appropriately in the Ghanaian courts. Besides the obvious structural problems (lack of capacity, funding, etc.), there is also a huge social taboo attached to rape and domestic abuse. Recently, we had to deal with our own case of rape within our organization… One of the members of the cooking team for the School Feeding Program, the assistant, G., raped a student from the elementary school. A 14 year old girl, in 1st grade. We were told about this only after the school principal asked him to resign – instead of firing him.
The girl lived with her grandmother, and was “moved” to Accra following the incident. The grandmother did not want to press charges against G. – and, in fact, the school discouraged her to do so. Which, to my Western sensibility, seemed quite ridiculous (for lack of a better word). But the principal explained to me that if the incident went “public”, then the school would acquire a bad reputation for harboring child rapists – I trust him on this, since he obviously knows how the community will react better than I ever will.

The point is, this reaction shows that the taboo on gender-based violence is misplaced, and that too often, perpetrators go unpunished. In fact, because G. resigned, he asked the school to pay him for the 2 weeks of work he had done that month – even though, mind you, he admitted to raping a child, the man actually had the guts to come and demand his salary. The school director and the principal disagreed on whether we should pay him – the director agreed with me that he essentially gave up his rights to ask for a salary when he raped the student… but the principal said that we owed him this money, and that if we didn’t pay him, then he may cause problems for the school. Which, again, I understand – but wow.

Is it possible that this child rapist can still make demands and basically blackmail the school? Yes it is! Because – as the aforementioned article illustrates – too often, cases of gender-based violence and rape go unpunished. How discouraging it must be for the families who do press charges, even though it will probably make their daughter/wife/sister exposed to social stigma, to not even obtain justice…

In Liberia, violence against women is still a huge problem – even UN peacekeepers have been found guilty of engaging in sex-for-food/security practices, which is incredibly worrying, even if it occurs on a small scale. The signals that it sends to the civilian population aren’t good – it makes it seem like a negligible offense.(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that these incidents involving UN staff have been investigated and are being taken very seriously by the leadership.)

There are also all the instances of domestic violence where the woman feels pressured not to report to the authorities – this is not specific to West Africa, obviously, it’s a problem that affects women in every country and social class. But in places suffering from chronic poverty, this type of situation is particularly debilitating, and, in my mind, acts as a brake on development – if you consider justice to be a fundamental element of development, which I believe it is. I’ve linked to this article before, but I find it really compelling.

Of course, fast tracking such cases in court and increasing punishment for perpetrators is but one dimension of dealing with this issue – above all, it’s about a socio-psychological shift in perception. If a school employee rapes a child, it shouldn’t reflect badly on the school, but on the person who committed the crime. In war affected societies where rape and violence against women was used as a weapon, this is of particular importance – to move forward, these societies have to take these crimes extremely seriously. The responsibility for this does not solely fall on governments and court systems – civil society has an essential role to play in reversing this trend.

**Edit**

Trusty MS has provided the following interesting links on the topic:

http://www.theirc.org/special-report/ending-violence-against-women.html
http://blog.theirc.org/2008/04/28/we-are-listening-how-to-help/
http://ga3.org/campaign/End_Violence_Against_Women

One thought on “On Justice

  1. Is it officially silly for me to comment on your blog since I talk to you 5xs each day? But as the meandering idealist’s biggest fan, I wanted to add this link on the project that reporter Ann Jones has been doing with the IRC on GBV in West Africa
    http://www.theirc.org/special-report/ending-violence-against-women.html
    Also with the IRC, this campaign to support and advocate for survivors of rape and GBV in Congo:
    http://blog.theirc.org/2008/04/28/we-are-listening-how-to-help/
    Interesting idea of writing letters of support to women who have been victimized, perhaps a useful tool in raising awareness. AN apparently this legislation is before currently before Congress now: International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA)
    template to send letter to your senator here: http://ga3.org/campaign/End_Violence_Against_Women

    check ya later 🙂

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