UN Special Rapporteur calls for improvement of criminal justice system for victims of sexual violence

Dubravka Šimonovic, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences, attended an media briefing with representatives from the press and NGOs on 26 November, in which she called for an improvement to the criminal justice system for victims of sexual violence and for absence of consent to become the global standard for the definition of rape.

Dubravka Šimonovic (Source: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran)

Violence against women is one of the most serious, life threatening, and widespread violations of human rights worldwide. It is firmly rooted in gender inequality, discrimination, and harmful cultural and social norms, and in Asia Pacific, the levels of violence against women remain high due to the widespread cultural acceptance of violence and the idea that it is a private matter.

According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), over 37% of women in South Asia, 40% of women in Southeast Asia, and up to 68% of women in the Pacific have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands and partners.

Šimonovic said that, in order to improve the criminal justice system for victims of sexual violence, it is important that all personnel involved in the system to be trained in investigating violence against women and domestic violence. Other parts of the system also need to be improved, such as making sure support services are available for the survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She emphasized the necessity of 24/7 helplines for victims of violence against women and domestic violence and involvement of women in the police force.

Šimonovic also said that, when the police force is not sensitive when it comes to cases of violence against women and when there is no risk assessment done by police officers, police officers on many occasions arrest both the victim and the perpetrator. She stressed that this is why it is important to focus on good training of not only police officers but also of judicial officials, such as prosecutors and judges. She also said that criminal justice systems are not yet fully in line with international standards, noting that only a minority of countries have changed the definition of rape in criminal codes to be based on the absence of consent.

In most countries, the definition of rape is based on the use of force, which requires evidence of coercion and puts pressure on the victim to prove that she resisted and failed to fight back. Šimonovic noted that this leads to double victimization, and in many cases, the perpetrator ends up walking free, therefore discouraging other women from filing cases.

“Now we are really focusing on what are key issues and main obstacles, and in that process, we really are seeing that the criminal justice system is currently not where it should be in line with international standards,” Šimonovic said.

Center: Anna-Karin Jatfors, Deputy Regional Director,
UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific
(Source: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran)

On Monday (25 November), the International Day on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Platform of 7 independent United Nations and regional expert mechanisms on violence against women and women’s rights also issued a joint call for all states and relevant stakeholders worldwide to “act against rape as a form of gender based violence and a human rights violation, and, to ensure that the definition of rape is based on the absence of consent, in line with international standards.”

The Platform noted that rape is one of the most underreported crimes and rarely prosecuted, even when it is reported, due to a number of factors, including gender-based stereotypes and criminal justice systems which define rape based on the use of force. The joint call also noted that the persistence of widespread and systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence against women and girls “demonstrates that sexual violence is deeply entrenched in our still predominantly patriarchal society” and that “power and control continue to create a social environment whereby such violence is normalized, and gender-based stereotypes on the role of women in society undermine and devalue women.”

These factors contribute to the “unacceptable tolerance of rape,” including in the criminal justice system, which often results in impunity for perpetrators. The force-based definition of rape adopted by many criminal justice systems also mean that victims who are unable to prove that they resisted are left stigmatized while the perpetrator walks free.

The Platform then calls for states to “close the gap between international and national laws on rape and sexual violence” and to:

  1. Revise criminal codes and ensure that the definition of rape is based on the absence of consent and that it is in line with international standards
  2. Explicitly criminalize rape and sexual violence within marriage
  3. Eradicate harmful and discriminatory gender stereotypes around sexual violence, including from within criminal justice systems that have often resulted in impunity for perpetrators, and collect data on rape prosecution
  4. Ensure the availability of accountability mechanism to address impunity
  5. Ensure that investigations into, or prosecution of rape offences, shall not be wholly dependent upon a report or complaint filed by the victims, and that the proceedings may be carried out even if the victim withdraws the complaint
  6. Ensure effective victim protection during the legal process through free legal aid and support in court
  7. Ensure wide availability of specialist support services
  8. Ensure adequate and comprehensive reparations are provided to women and girls who are victims of sexual violence in times of both war and peace.

The meeting took place at the Anantara Siam Hotel in Bangkok (Source: UN Women/Pornvit Visitoran)

Šimonovic said that Asia Pacific still lacks specific regional instruments dealing with violence against women, something which exists now in Europe in the form of the Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, signed by 46 countries and the European Union, and on the global scale, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

While there exists the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Šimonovic said that it is important to see whether it would be possible for the Asia-Pacific region to produce legally binding instruments to address these issues in the future.

Nevertheless, as the UN Special Rapporteur, whose task is to make country visits and produce thematic reports, Šimonovic said that there is some progress in terms of elimination of violence against women and women’s empowerment. Different forms of discrimination are becoming more well-recognized, and new mechanisms dealing with women’s rights and violence against women are being established. Šimonovic also said that there is commitment from Asia-Pacific countries with respect to implementation of the UN CEDAW Convention.

The meeting was attended by representatives of the media and NGOs across the Asia-Pacific region, from India and Nepal to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand, and took place at the Anantara Siam Hotel at 8.30 am on 26 November.