By Connor J. Wangler
Sexual abuse and violence in Sub-Saharan Africa are problems that transcend social, economic, and even racial lines. It is particularly focused on women and adolescents, who lack the economic ability and social status to avoid or report it. This violence can come in many forms, such as domestic violence, rape, or female genital mutilation. Accurate information on the amount of sexual violence or abuse is difficult to obtain due to many incidents going unreported due to cultural norms or inability to obtain to legal services. Beyond the personal distress caused by these actions experienced by victims, these problems carry significant social impacts. For example, the World Bank reported that sexual violence and domestic abuse “account for five percent of healthy years of life lost to women of reproductive age” in the developing world. This, then, affects the contributions of women to a country’s potential labor force and, therefore, its economic future. Additionally, these problems have spread sexually transmitted diseases and infections, such as HIV/AIDS; thus, governments must dedicate large amounts of funds to health services instead of infrastructure and financial services.
In response to these problems, several initiatives have been established by both governments and non-government organizations alike. One private group is the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which advocates for victims of these crimes and lobbies governments to implement stricter, comprehensive laws to go after perpetrators. The group focuses on solutions that provide on-the-ground help to victims, such as counseling and health care, as well as larger institutional and social components. IRC provides training to approximately 2.5 million people a year on how to prevent sexual violence within their communities. It partners with governments and financial institutions to provide economic empowerment to women so that they can provide for themselves and remove any dependency on potentially harmful familial relationships. It also works with individual governments and international organizations to pass laws against the abuse and exploitation of women, such as reforming statutory rape laws that do not protect young girls as non-consenting. One of the IRC’s newest programs is its “Vision Not Victim” initiative that focuses on providing young girls and women affected by sexual violence and abuse resources to empower themselves and develop goals once thought inconceivable.
To many, however, the answer to these problems must be much more individualized. Institutional and social reforms are necessary, yes, but offering true solace to victims necessitates resolution specific to each victim. Therefore, initiatives and laws being created need to build in mechanisms that allow victims to “speak about what sort of compensation they need” through the legal and community proceedings. For example, many victims may seek financial restitution to empower themselves economically, while others may wish to see a monument built in their local community honoring victims of abuse. Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner on Human Rights, says that public prosecutions and condemnations are simply not enough. She argues that the victim must be at the heart of the solution not just the offense. Here is an interview with Navi Pillay by the International Committee on the Red Cross where she discusses what she believes is necessary for combatting sexual and domestic crimes:
Responses to acts of sexual violence and domestic abuse must be all-encompassing. Treating one component of the problem, such as legal procedure, is not enough to bring real resolution. Partnerships between governments and private organizations must be forged to allow for community outreach and development to exist hand-in-hand with increased services to victims. Above all else, however, it is clear that in any country, developed or developing, it is the victim of these crimes that must be the focus.