A major highlight of the recently concluded 61st ordinary session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was the launch of “Guidelines on Combating Sexual Violence and Its Consequences in Africa.” Adopted during the 60th ordinary session in Niamey, Niger Republic, the guidelines seek to provide some guidance to state parties on their obligations and commitments with respect to combating sexual violence and its consequences.
To provide some context, the UN Women estimates that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Lucy Asuagbor, Commissioner & Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa estimates that 39% of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa are married before they reach the age of 18. She also explains that: in some countries, more than 70% of women have been victims of domestic violence, including sexual violence. Unfortunately, as the incidence of sexual violence rises so does impunity for perpetrators – leaving victims with limited or no remedies.
The Guidelines set out three general principles and four obligations for states in respect of sexual violence. The principles are non-discrimination in the protection of the rights of victims of sexual violence; the “do no harm” principle according to which states must take all measures to guarantee the well-being and security of victims and witnesses of sexual violence; and the due diligence principle which obligates states to ensure that their agents refrain from committing any acts of sexual violence and where these acts are suspected, that they are investigated and perpetrators are punished and victims obtain remedies.
States owe obligations to prevent sexual violence and its consequences through elimination of the root causes of violence, including patriarchal preconceptions and stereotypes about women and girls, among others; to provide protection against sexual violence and its consequences by ensuring that victims have access to the assistance they require; to guarantee access to justice and investigate/prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence; and to provide effective remedy and reparation for victims of sexual violence.
In preventing sexual violence and its consequences, states are enjoined to adopt awareness raising strategies that target the most vulnerable populations, inform people about existing legislation, including remedies available to victims, focus on the root causes of the problem and prevention of the consequences. They must also create educational programmes that promote gender equality and challenge existing stereotypes about women and girls; train professionals, including police, state security personnel and others as well as those involved in peacekeeping operations; adopt urban and rural planning policies and measures to prevent and combat sexual violence; and cooperate with local stakeholders and civil society organizations that conduct programs aimed at preventing and addressing sexual violence and its consequences.
The Guidelines offer some ideas about reporting sexual violence. They recommend that states designate emergency numbers, day centres for counselling, support and referral, the deployment of specially trained social workers to police stations and other security outposts to provide care and guidance to victims.
In terms of measures to protect and support victims, the Guidelines prescribe “one stop centres,” where all related services can be provided in an integrated manner; provision of shelters for victims; and the necessary legislative and regulatory environment for relevant authorities to hand down protection orders for victims in immediate danger. They also recommend medical and social support as well as access to information for victims and their families.
To ensure that perpetrators no longer get away with sexual violence, the guidelines recommend the criminalization and prosecution of sexual violence as well as legal assistance and representation for victims. The guidelines also devote some attention to the right to “appropriate, efficient, accessible, timeous and long-lasting reparation for injury and loss suffered by victims.”
The guidelines close with the most important section – implementation. They urge states to ratify regional and international instruments designed to combat sexual violence, harmonize domestic legislation with regional and international standards; adopt and implement effective and coordinated domestic public policy; develop, implement, monitor and evaluate national action plans on women, peace and security; create national gender equality and human rights institutions; take interest in measurement and statistical data; adopt gender-responsive budgeting systems; and undertake full implementation of the guidelines.
The final paragraph of the guidelines enjoins states to include a description of progress achieved in the implementation of these guidelines in their biennial reports to the African Commission with respect to the situation of human rights and the rights of women. This is critical in terms of keeping this subject matter on the front banner well into the future.
Civil society must take the lead in nudging state parties to take necessary steps to ensure, at the very least, progressive implementation of these guidelines. But this is not for civil society alone. As Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director famously observed in the context of domestic violence: “There is a role for leadership and legislation to make violence against women illegal and to punish offenders. Many countries already have appropriate laws in place, but they are not fully enforced. That has to change. States have a primary role to play in implementing current laws and conventions, and in introducing new legislations where it is lacking.”
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