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Good Laws Are The Floor, Not The Ceiling Of What We Can Achieve

Good laws can not only signal and even positively influence society’s values, they also provide a structure from which to promote and defend rights. However, in the thirty years that Equality Now has worked to promote good laws, we have learned that what’s written on paper doesn’t always translate to justice and that without proper implementation and a nuanced understanding of how different communities are impacted then legal reform will only get you so far. 

This is especially true when it comes to sexual violence laws. 

While anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, structural misogyny and systematic inequality mean that women and girls are much more likely to experience sexual violence and much less likely to perpetrate it than men. Because the vast majority of victims are women and girls and almost all perpetrators are men, sexual violence is a form of gender-based violence that can only be eliminated by tackling the root causes of sexism. 

Fueled by patriarchal assumptions about sexuality and power, survivors of sexual violence are frequently stigmatized and shamed. Around the world, victims are often blamed for their own abuse, and perpetrators’ behavior is routinely excused or justified. Many laws reinforce harmful stereotypes by referencing morality and purity or requiring victims to have “fought back” in order to prove a rape has occurred, but even in instances where strong laws are in place, shoddy implementation can remain a key barrier to justice.

Laws are only as good as the judges and lawyers that understand them’

For instance, despite the fact that Canada has a “rape shield provision” which prevents a survivor’s previous sexual history to be used as evidence against them, survivor Mandi recounted the defense lawyer attempting to access her therapy records and to be given permission to question Mandi about her sexual preferences. While the judge denied the requests, that didn’t stop the lawyer from asking “stupid, really gross and irrelevant questions”, stating that sexual intercourse with Mandi was like “having sex with a dead fish” in open court and grilling her for multiple hours on the stand in order to undermine her credibility. 

As Mandi eloquently sums up “The laws are only as good as the judge and lawyers that understand them. There is a problem of a lack of understanding about how rape myths enter the court. If you are a victim and the rape shield provisions are being violated, if the judge doesn’t say anything and the lawyers aren’t interjecting, where do you go?”

Why we need a multi-sectoral approach

Efforts to combat harmful gender-based practices, including sexual violence, are often siloed and narrow in scope. While governments may appoint a gender minister or develop a cabinet tasked with working on “women’s affairs,” many fail to integrate a gendered perspective across all sectors. Successful implementation of sexual violence laws or policies targeting gender-based violence requires coordinated buy-in and commitment.

The multi-sectoral approach or “MSA” brings together relevant state and non-state actors and provides a platform for coordination to develop and implement national programs and actions. This strategy is essential for implementing gender-related laws and policies as it requires both top-down and bottom-up participation. We recently published a report that analyzed how the MSA has been utilized in Africa to eradicate gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation. We found that while countries in Africa are making progress in addressing and preventing gender-based violence (GBV), challenges such as lack of strong political commitment and limited resources are significantly impacting MSA’s effective implementation

Survivors often hesitate to engage with the legal system even when they know they have the right to do so because they fear being shamed or disbelieved by authorities or do not believe that reporting will result in action. Successful implementation includes training criminal justice personnel on trauma-informed investigation and interrogation. From police officers to judges, from medical examiners to defense attorneys, every person who interacts with survivors of sexual violence has the power to retraumatize and every precaution must be taken to avoid additional harm. 

Only by working together, and fully resourcing the effective implementation of laws and policies, will we end sexual violence. 

Join Equality Now’s international network of changemakers, from government ministers and UN bodies to civil society and human rights lawyers, to learn from one another and drive forward the vital work to make gender equality a reality.

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