COVID-19 Conversations: Virtual court hearings in Latin America

COVID-19 Conversations: Virtual court hearings in Latin America

COVID-19 is exposing and exacerbating gender inequalities around the world. Each week, we’ll be sharing insights from Equality Now experts about how women’s and girls’ lives are being affected by the pandemic and what can be done to address these challenges. 

This week, Equality Now’s Americas Regional Coordinator, Bárbara Jiménez-Santiago, discusses the impact that online court hearings in Latin America are having on some victims of gender-based crime.

Women and girls have long struggled to get access to legal justice for sexual and gender-based crimes in Latin America. What impact is the coronavirus crisis having on this?

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting criminal justice systems under unprecedented strain, with severe restrictions on movement and social distancing posing enormous challenges to the operation of courts. One response by some Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina, has been to introduce virtual court hearings for pre-trial detainees, and other governments in the region are considering similar measures.

The aim is to ensure that defendants do not wait a prolonged amount of time to have their case heard and are not kept in prison unnecessarily, where they could be at heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19.

While virtual trials can be effective, state authorities have not put adequate safeguards in place to ensure that victims’ rights are protected. Critically, many complainants do not have access to the technology needed to digitally attend online hearings, and nor do their lawyers. In some instances, victims of sexual and gender-based crime have not been informed that their case is going forward or that their abuser could be or has been released from prison.

What should governments do to balance the rights between complainants and defendants awaiting trial?

The COVID-19 pandemic is placing women and girls at heightened risk, in a region already blighted by a pandemic of gender-based violence. Around two women are murdered every hour in Latin America, and domestic violence and sexual assault are widespread. As legal systems seek to find solutions to the disruption caused by COVID-19, they must not do so at the expense of victims.

Countries that have enacted virtual trials should work with civil society organizations to assess the gender impact of legal procedures, and adopt guidelines to ensure that women and girls are not placed at risk and are well supported throughout the trial process.

A defendant charged with a sexual or gender-based crime cannot be allowed to go to the same location as their victim. Women’s and children’s rights organizations in the region have urged that in cases where a defendant previously lived with a complainant, the State should ensure that released people have a place to live which is not where they had lived with the victim or, in cases of sexual violence against minors, any residence in which a minor is present.. In addition, restraining orders, for example, should be granted if requested and properly enforced by the police.

In Bolivia, 58.5% of women will be subject to intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetime, and only 6% of rape cases make it to trial. Bolivia’s Supreme Court has responded to concerns raised by civil society organizations about the lack of protections for complainants when releasing offenders from prison who are awaiting trial. Going forward, virtual hearings will only be permitted when the accused is 1) 60 years of age or older; 2) has a chronic illness; or 3) is pregnant or responsible for the care of a minor.

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COVID-19 is an unfolding crisis that is harming women and girls in various ways. Here are some issues we are following:

Rising sexual violence in Bolivia:

Equality Now partner and survivor of sexual abuse Brisa De Angulo spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the discusses the surge in violence against girls during Bolivia’s lockdown, and how a lack of adequate laws and policies have exacerbated the impact of COVID-19.

Local leaders taking action to protect girls in Kenya from increasing female genital mutilation

In Kenya, there has been an increase in the number of girls in danger of female genital mutilation with some in rural communities using school closures as an opportunity to cut girls. In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Equality Now Program Officer Felister Gitonga commended local leaders who are taking action to prevent this but said the police need to respond as well.

Landlords in the US demanding 'sex-for-rent' from economically vulnerable tenants

NBC News reported on rising incidents of landlords preying on economically vulnerable tenants whose situation has been made more precarious by COVID-19 by demanding sex instead of rent. Women of color, immigrants, and undocumented are particularly impacted by this abuse because they are less likely to report the crime due to fear of retribution or dismissal of claims.

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