What is the purpose of government, if not to safeguard the rights of its citizens? Many people working with victims of domestic violence in developing countries will agree that the law often does not offer adequate protection to victims. Our Goal of Gender Equality (MDG3) will never be reached if we do not address this problem.
For most women who are heavily dependent on their abusers, attaining economic independence is an impossible dream. Consequently, “women – who are often at the heart of every nation” are not able to make sure their children are fed, educated or vaccinated. In order to accelerate progress on some of the Millennium Development Goals, good governance and legal reforms to protect the vulnerable are desperately needed.
Several studies have shown that there is a correlation between development and the treatment of women in a society. It is therefore imperative that in addition to the substantial financing plans being made to meet the MDGs, leaders in developing countries must reform the law to protect women who are subjected to domestic violence. The creation of prosperous and peaceful societies is not possible if the wellbeing of women is not taken care of. It is common knowledge that the state and its various institutions are especially crucial in ensuring that its citizens are protected and have access to the basic necessities of life.
Discriminatory nature of customary law
Over the past few decades, there have been growing concerns about the violation of the Human Rights of women living in rural communities, where people are subject to customary law. The hybrid nature of most legal systems in Africa for instance – were statutory law operates alongside discriminatory customary laws – puts women in a very disadvantaged position. Remedies for domestic violence under customary law are non-existent. The realities of domestic violence are not recognized.
There is a moral danger in allowing discriminatory customary laws to be interpreted in a way that leaves women in a vulnerable position, unable to fulfill their potential. The effect of customary law is that it grants societies the permission to treat women like second-class citizens. These laws lack “specific rules” regarding domestic violence. With almost no female personnel in customary courts, discriminatory attitudes are rife. This oppressive environment is hardly a springboard for social mobility.
Domestic violence is a Human Rights issue
Domestic violence incapacitates those on the receiving end and is a Human Rights issue. Leaders of countries in the developing world need to fully recognize this. Most Governments have departments that deal with gender issues and are not short of advice from women’s groups, yet changes in the law are not being made. What is lacking is commitment – a commitment to take up recommendations made by various reputable NGOs working to raise awareness of domestic violence, to ensure the inclusion of women and protection of Human Rights.
The lack of sensitivity to women subjected to violence undermines women’s rights to protection under the law. The ineffectiveness of the law has created a dangerous situation for women living in these societies and has reduced public faith in law enforcement institutions. It is not rare to find victims who downplay a domestic violence incident that could have cost them their lives and retract statements given to police, for fear of being ostracized from the communities they live in.
Criminalising domestic violence
While some may argue that progress has been made in countries like Uganda, which criminalised martial rape and other forms of domestic violence through the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act, more work needs to be done to address the failings of the enforcers of law, when it comes to securing justice for victims. So far, domestic violence legislation enacted in countries like South Africa and Uganda have been merely symbolic.
Research carried out by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Uganda revealed early this year that out of every 10 women in the country, 8 women are battered by their husbands but don’t report cases of assault to police. In most situations, the police tend to be indifferent to the plight of victims of domestic violence. Legal reform in many parts of Africa have been painfully slow with some arguing that domestic violence is already covered under penal codes.
The way forward
Change must start now. It must start at the highest levels of Government in developing countries and carried through to the grass roots. Major reforms in law are needed to institute a change in attitudes, that will create fairer societies, promoting equality of opportunity as well as allowing people to rise above their circumstances and become socially mobile.
British based freelance writer with a background in the legal and educational sector. Kabukabu has written for various publications, including the ezine, The African Executive, and African Business, a magazine that publishes articles of interest to people in business, ministers and officials concerned with African affairs. She has a huge interest in advocating for the creation of a climate that will foster sustainable development in Africa.