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Criminal Justice Practice and Violence Against Women

The United Nations Agenda 2030, which is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity, comprises 17 goals and 170+ targets. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 aims at achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Gender equality is a fundamental and inviolable human right and women’s and girls’ empowerment is essential to expand economic growth, promote social development and enhance business performance. One of the key actions to achieve gender equality is to establish zero-tolerance policies towards all forms of violence at work or at home, including verbal/ and/ or physical abuse and prevent sexual harassment.

Based on these premises, the Gender and Security Division at DCAF and La Strada Ukraine, an international civil society organization, worked together to assess the current practices of the Ukrainian criminal justice system in responding to violence against women (VAW) and domestic violence (DV). The project implementation lasted ten months, from April 2016 to February 2017. The research used both quantitative and qualitative data.  Through anonymous questionnaires administered to 388 police officers, 106 prosecutors, and 169 judges; more than 900 court decisions issued in 2015 in administrative and criminal VAW/DV cases were analyzed and studied.

The project conclusions suggest that the Ukrainian criminal justice system is ineffective to respond to VAW/DV due to three main indicators:

  • Underreporting – most cases of VAW/DV are not reported to the police;
  • Attrition – only a fraction of the VAW/DV cases reported to police result in a conviction at the end of the justice chain; and
  • Non-deterrent sentencing – sentencing practices fail to prevent VAW/DV in the first place and do not deter the escalation of violence or repeat offenses.

I had the chance to interview Callum Watson (CW), Project Coordinator for the DCAF Gender and Security Programme. His work primarily focuses on teaching gender to the military in NATO and Partner countries as well as on gender and justice reform, with a specific focus on domestic violence, gender bias and sexual and gender-based harassment. In this role, he conducts research, develops educational resources, delivers courses and provides technical assistance on gender and security in collaboration with both Gender and Security Programme staff and external partners, such as NATO and the Partnership for Peace.

1. How did the Ukrainian criminal justice system receive these findings?

CW – Given that we involved criminal justice actors in the process of designing the research methodology as well as in the assessment process, our partners really owned the results of the assessment. We had highlighted that our intention was not to blame anyone but rather to identify what the next steps would be to improve the judicial response to domestic violence. Having collaborated closely in identifying the problems, DCAF and La Strada Ukraine continue to work in partnership with institutions such as the National School of Judges and the Association of Prosecutors in developing and implementing solutions.

2. It has been over a year that the project was conducted, what has changed in the Ukrainian criminal justice system since then?

CW – Ukraine took a key step in criminalizing domestic violence in December 2017. Criminal justice actors are now preparing to implement the new law when it comes into force in January 2019. DCAF and La Strada will continue to work on this topic within the framework of the European Union’s Pravo-Justice project. We are the implementing partners for a sub-component on domestic violence. As part of this project, we will:

  • Monitor the justice system’s response to domestic violence and violence against women, culminating in an assessment in 2020. (This will revisit the findings of the report assessment report from 2017.)
  • Support the design, delivery and institutionalization of training for judges and prosecutors on domestic violence and violence against women.
  • Support the development of guidance on domestic violence for judges and prosecutors, especially in view of the new legislation.

3. What was the trigger to start this project?

CW – The Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which Ukraine had signed in 2011, entered into force in 2014. Following the Euromaidan Revolution in the same year, the interim government in Ukraine committed to reforming the judiciary, which the donor community was likely to support. DV is a longstanding issue so you need to look for windows of opportunity when they come up.

4. Due to the fact the Istanbul Convention is a legally-binding agreement, how do you think we can improve monitoring and police training to guarantee the prevention and/or the protection of women and girls in those countries who have already signed and ratified the Istanbul convention?

CW – Ukraine’s parliament failed to ratify the Istanbul Convention because lawmakers objected to references to “gender” and “sexual orientation.” Nevertheless, the European Union is currently working towards harmonizing data collection methodologies for domestic violence in a bid allow comparisons between different areas and to assess what works. As far as I understand, Bosnia and Herzegovina (a non-EU, Istanbul Convention signatory) is looking to replicate this methodology to produce comparable data with the support of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Essentially, as is the case with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, having a common reference document allows you to create a cross-border governmental and non-governmental community around a given issue, and we can see that this is beginning to happen with the Istanbul Convention.

Improvements to police training – as the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) points out – essentially needs to move from a point where we simply inform the police and judicial sector about the law towards exploring how the biases that we all have affected our judgments of these cases. It is why a police officer will not intervene in the “private matter” of a domestic violence incident while taking a hard line on drugs, even if the law prescribes similarly severe penalties. Training also focuses on specific characteristics about DV such as the fact that it is primarily about power and control (while it can manifest physically and in very severe ways, it is essentially psychological), that the attempts of victims to withdraw complaints do not undermine their credibility and that societal gender equality (not differences in physical strength) is the root cause of DV. This approach to training is beginning to be shared. Another important area is to look at intersectionality – access to justice varies based not only on gender but other areas such as class, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, et al, and tailored responses are therefore needed.

5. If you would replicate this project in other countries, what would you do differently?

CW – I do not have a thorough answer to this question. I feel like we are still in the midst of the project. One thing we had to change was the way we frame the topic. We once were looking at relying on the Istanbul Convention which turned out to be a pitfall. The current framing has more to do with harmonizing Ukraine’s justice sector with European standards. I do not think we could have known this – you always have to adapt to the time and context.

6. What is your takeaway from this project?

CW – I can answer this question talking about Bosnia. We had a delegation from Ukraine visit our justice project in Bosnia which had been running for a longer time (and was larger – it covered domestic violence, gender bias and sexual & gender-based harassment within judicial and prosecutorial institutions). One takeaway is to remember that you are building a network of gender champions that will be the ones who continue the legacy after you leave. The Bosnia project involved creating two sets of gender trainers (judges and prosecutors) from all over the country. The group was representative in terms of gender and geographical location. We ran a set of six workshops one weekend a month in remote locations. The members of the two groups became good friends as they developed trust, opened up and shared their experiences, frustrations, challenges and solutions in a frank and honest way. We then discovered that they had begun to organize their own activities or would attend events organized by others en masse (a group of people do something altogether and at the same time). They became a network of both advocates but also supported each other substantively and emotionally. You could also see the Ukrainian delegation (who came for a week) develop similar dynamics. There may have been a few who were skeptical or disinterested in the beginning, but by the end, they all saw themselves as pioneers and champions in this field.

This blog post was written by Patricia Zanini Graca. Patricia is a second-year graduate student at Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Patricia graduated in Business Administration and she holds an MBA in Business and Marketing. Patricia is a UN Digital Representative at the Center for UN and Global Governance Studies, the Executive Editor at the Journal of Diplomacy, and the Director of International Affairs at the Graduate Diplomacy Council. She specializes in International Organizations and Global Negotiations & Conflict Management.


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