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Violence Against Women

In 1998 violence against women remained one of the most intractable violations of women’s human rights. In various forms it persisted in times of peace as well as in times of conflict. The perpetrators were as likely to be private actors as public officials. Women were beaten in their homes by intimate partners; raped and otherwise sexually assaulted during times of internal conflict by soldiers; sexually assaulted by law enforcement personnel while in their custody; raped in refugee camps by other refugees, local police, or the military; and targeted for sexual violence based on their low social status.

Several years of work by women’s human rights movements produced gains in government actions to deter violence against women in a handful of countries in 1998. For example, Taiwan’s legislature considered a bill that would fully criminalize rape and sexual abuse. Currently, rape is not automatically considered a criminal offense, and the state does not bring criminal charges in every rape case. Although the criminal code makes rape illegal, the state will not proceed with the investigation of a rape case without the consent of the victim, many of whom settle for monetary compensation out of court rather than press criminal charges. The bill would remove the option of an out-of-court settlement and would require the police automatically to file criminal charges in any rape or sexual abuse case that comes to their attention. In another step forward, Egypt’s Supreme Administration Court upheld a governmental ban on the genital cutting of girls and women in late December 1997. The 1996 governmental ban had been challenged by conservatives who claimed that genital cutting was a legitimate religious and cultural practice with which the state should not interfere. The government began public education programs in early 1998 about the health risks of genital cutting and announced its intent to impose penalties on doctors, midwives, and barbers who violated the ban.

Nevertheless, many government actions in response to violence against women were inadequate. Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that, while some governments focused legislative attention on domestic and sexual violence, such reform was undermined by structural barriers to women’s meaningful access to legal redress and protection from further violence. Domestic violence victims faced nearly insurmountable obstacles when attempting to report assault. In countries from Bosnia to Peru, South Africa to Russia, authorities treated domestic violence as a lesser offense because it took place between intimate partners, and discouraged women from reporting assaults. Women in different countries told Human Rights Watch that, instead of helping victims to file complaints, police routinely accused them of being bad spouses, implying that their behavior somehow warranted the abuse. In Peru, for example, domestic violence victims reported that police peppered them with questions about what they “had done” to their husbands to provoke a physical attack. In post-conflict Bosnia, we found that, routinely, police flatly refused to intervene in domestic violence disputes.

Sexual violence victims faced some of the same obstacles, including acute bias in the legal system. Human Rights Watch monitored four countries—Peru, Russia, South Africa, and Pakistan—where women victims of sexual violence undergo a forensic exam in order to gather evidence supporting their rape claims. These exams are essential to the case’s proceeding successfully through the legal system. However, these forensic exams, while required by law, were rarely conducted in a way to gather complete and compelling evidence of sexual assault. In Pakistan, for example, the forensic exam concentrated almost exclusively on determining the state of the victim’s hymen—a trend reported in other countries as well. Elsewhere, as in South Africa, forensic doctors were poorly trained and did not complete exams that were consistent with victims’ injuries.

Governments were also remiss in preventing and condemning other forms of violence against women, such as violence in conflict and post-conflict situations and violence in state custody. Internal civil strife often provided the context in which women were targeted for sexual assault, as well as one of the reasons they fled their homelands for refugees camps, where they again were targets of sexual violence.

In 1998 Human Rights Watch investigated private actor violence against women in India and Indonesia; wartime violence and post-conflict abuse in Algeria, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania; and custodial abuse in the United States.

Violence by private actors
De jure discrimination, as well as customary practices, often kept women in a subordinate status in their communities. This unequal status made them targets for sexual and domestic violence. The failure of judicial systems to investigate thoroughly and condemn acts of domestic and sexual violence against women further diminished and entrenched women’s second-class status through impunity.

In 1997 Human Rights Watch conducted a series of investigations into the state’s response to violence against women in Pakistan, Peru, Russia, and South Africa, where we found that women’s complaints of domestic and sexual violence were often met with legal indifference and procedural and attitudinal obstacles. A year later, little had changed.

More often than not, it was government agents, in the form of local police, who were the first and most persistent obstacle tojustice for rape and domestic violence complaints. Our work in different countries showed that police exercised undue and arbitrary authority regarding the types of complaints they accepted, and actively discouraged women from filing complaints—a pattern reported by women’s advocates in other countries. For example, in Peru police routinely refused to process victims’ complaints, conducted shoddy investigations, failed to offer victims protective orders, failed to remove violent men from the home, and blamed victims for the violence.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reaffirmed his government’s commitment to women’s human rights yet failed to back this up with progress toward preventing widespread violence against women. Pakistani police still failed to investigate an alarming and fatal form of violence against women: bride burning. An August 1998 report on bride burning by the nongovernmental Progressive Women’s Association (PWA) found that the government’s response to this common type of violence against women remained negligent. PWA found that Pakistani women, particularly young brides, were still being burned in “accidental fires,” usually from stoves and most often set by their husbands or in-laws. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported that in 1997 in the Lahore newspapers alone, reports of stove burnings averaged more than four a week; three of every four (75 percent) women victims of stove burnings died.

The pattern of bias against domestic violence victims extended to the judiciary in the countries we researched. Women victims of domestic violence who were able to persuade the police to accept their cases for investigation were later hampered by judicial systems that valued family unity over the safety of women victims of domestic violence. For example, in Peru judges often referred married domestic violence victims and their batterers to counseling before charges could be laid against the accused, with the alleged batterer remaining in the home.

Rape victims in these countries fared just as poorly. They faced many of the same obstacles as victims of domestic violence. Police acted as gatekeepers and allowed their own stereotypes and biases about women’s behavior or dress to jeopardize the investigation of cases. Often, women’s complaints were met by disbelief and disregard for their privacy and security. Police skepticism toward rape cases compromised official investigations, effectively denying women’s equality under the law. In one rape case documented by Human Rights Watch in Russia, police gave the defendant the victim’s address and notified him that she had reported a rape. In Russia, in the rare instances when police did register reports, victims were subject to intrusions into their privacy during the course of the investigation, including psychological exams and interviews with the victims’ friends and family.

Forensic doctors were another obstacle to justice for sexual violence in countries including Peru, South Africa, and Pakistan. According to the South African Department of Justice, the country has one of the highest rates of reported rape in the world. There was a rise from 105.3 per 100,000 in 1994 to 119.5 per 100,000 in 1996. District surgeons, those responsible for performing forensic exams on sexual assault victims, were often poorly trained in the collection of evidence in rape cases, reluctant to appear in court to affirm their findings, or unavailable for the timely examination of rape victims, and they unfairly vetted and prejudged victims, choosing to do thorough examinations only on those whom they deemed likely to be persuasive in court. In fact, a parliamentary subcommittee identified district surgeons as being among the biggest stumbling blocks to the successful prosecution and conviction of rapists. The South African government did begin to address this problem and released procedural guidelines for the treatment of sexual violence victims in 1998—guidelines aimed at health care professionals, prosecutors of rape, social welfare agencies, and others. Activists expressed hope that government officials would ensure that these far-reaching guidelines would be widely distributed and implemented.

Women’s second-class status rendered them vulnerable to rape by intimate partners at home and by strangers on the street. In many countries, sexual violence against women carried no real probability of punishment or penalty, sending the message that these types of crimes were of no importance to the state. This acceptance of sexual violence against women was reflected and magnified elsewhere in times of national or regional unrest or civil strife, when women were targeted for rape as a continuation of the impunity for rape and sexual violence during times of peace. Sexual violence was perpetrated against women in times of conflict as a deliberate political policy of warring factions.

Whether civil unrest was directed at those groups believed to be financially better off or not a trusted part of the social fabric—as was the case of the violence directed at Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese—or at those perceived as vastly inferior and challenging the social hierarchy—as was the case of violence directed at lower castes in India—the women of these distinct groups suffered the same fate: sexual assault.

In Indonesia, frustration about the economic crisis and political authoritarianism devolved into widespread civil unrest that ultimately removed President Soeharto from power. Just as much of the violence and looting were directed at the ethnic Chinese population, so were ethnic Chinese women reportedly singled out for rape and sexual assault.

The allegations of rape were turned into a political football rather than investigated seriously. Indonesian authorities used the rape allegations to further impugn the reputation of ethnic Chinese. Then they used the allegations to call into question the credibility of nongovernmental organizations. The Indonesian government’s skepticism was based in part on the fact that no victims had come forward to the police. However, nongovernmental organizations working with rape victims noted that many were too ashamed to come forward, had fled the country, or were afraid of reporting the rape as police were widely believed to have been involved in the riots and the rapes themselves.

As of this writing and largely thanks to the efforts of Indonesian women’s advocates, President Habibie had appointed a fact-finding commission to investigate the violence. Meanwhile, women’s rights advocates continued to work with rape survivors, providing counseling, monitoring the government’s response, and gathering evidence on the rape charges.

In some instances, socially determined characteristics such as caste affiliation rendered women more vulnerable to rape. In India, despite protective legislation, attacks against members of the lower castes continued to go unpunished. Sexual abuse and otherforms of violence by high-caste men against lower-caste women have historically been a means of maintaining socio-economic divisions in India. Upper-caste men, landlords, and the police have physically and sexually abused Dalit (“untouchable”) women to suppress movements to demand payment of minimum wages, settle sharecropping disputes, or reclaim lost land. Cases of such abuse were documented by Human Rights Watch in 1998. ( See section on India.) Dalit women were targeted on the basis of both their sex and their caste. They are thought to be available for sexual abuse, and their occupations in agriculture or as prostitutes put them in frequent contact with men who can rape them with impunity. While women all over India found the criminal justice system unsympathetic to sexual assault, Dalit women also confronted officials who were hostile to their low caste status.

Wartime violence and post-conflict abuse
Historically, women have been targeted for sexual violence during times of conflict—both civil and international. Soldiers raped and otherwise sexually abused women from the opposing side as a method of war; in this sense rape functioned to demoralize and punish the enemy. Another contributing factor to women’s being targeted for sexual violence during times of conflict was the socialized attitudes that men held about women: women (like other objects) were spoils of war and therefore sexually available to them in times of conflict. Moreover, soldiers did not fear being punished for engaging in sexual violence toward a part of the civilian population that, even in times of peace, held an unequal or diminished status vis-à-vis men.

For example, women in Sierra Leone were victims of sexual violence during the armed conflict which intensified between February and June 1998 when the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the United Revolutionary Front (RUF), an armed rebel coalition that was opposed to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s government, increased attacks against civilians. The attacks included rape and enslavement of women and girls for sex and labor by the AFRC/RUF rebels.

In Algeria, armed Islamist factions, nominally headed by the Armed Islamic Group, a secretive coalition of Islamist militants and armed groups known as the GIA, have made attacks against women an integral part of a campaign against a secularist government that canceled legislative elections in 1992. In 1998, the GIA continued to engage in a punitive campaign against those whom they perceived as having turned their back on Islam by failing to join in the holy war against the Algerian state. Within this context, the GIA abducted and sexually assaulted women, considering them spoils of war. The GIA intimidated, raped, mutilated, and killed women for opposing their views, for defying their rules (regarding dress, work, and education), and for being married to “infidels” (members of government security forces).

In conflict situations women are among the first to become internal or international refugees. With refugee families living under debilitating financial and social stress, the incidence of domestic violence risks escalation. Moreover, female refugees face an increased risk of sexual violence by other refugees, because of close living quarters, poor security, or the existence of combatants among the civilians.

Ethnic conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes Region precipitated massive internal and external displacement of people during 1998. Conflict in Burundi, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) precipitated a massive exodus of people into Tanzanian refugee camps, where women refugees faced domestic violence in their homes and sexual violence in the camps and in areas around the camps. Burundian women, for example, were raped by other refugees, Tanzanians from nearby communities, and police officers. Additionally, according to refugee women representatives in the camps, almost every married Burundian refugee woman had experienced domestic violence since becoming a refugee.

Often the host countries for refugee women and the agencies that operated refugees camps were wholly ill-equipped to investigate and respond to incidents of domestic and sexual violence against refugee women. Our research found that the Tanzanian government’s and international humanitarian agencies’ representatives, in responding to the refugee crisis in Tanzania, failed to investigate and punish instances of sexual and domestic violence, creating an atmosphere of impunity. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) failed to implement existing policy guidelines on preventing sexual violence against refugee women. UNHCR field staff in Tanzania did not follow up to ensure that cases were properly tried in court and that women had access to legal redress. Moreover, some UNHCR staff did not view domestic violence as a crime. Consequently, they referred victims of domestic violence and their batterers to counseling rather than to the judicial system. At the time of this writing, UNHCR had no policy guidelines on responding to and preventing domestic violence against refugee women.

Lack of justice for victims of sexual and domestic violence in Tanzanian camps was further compounded by deficiencies in a dual legal system operating in the camps: the traditional Burundian and the Tanzanian criminal justice systems. The Burundian system was composed of male refugee leaders, who had no legal training and limited enforcement powers. Even for serious assault cases, they could impose only a minuscule fine. Many Tanzanian government officials did not view domestic violence as a crime and were reluctant to refer cases to court. They often offered counseling services that focused on reconciling the two parties, ignoring the victims’ need for justice.

Resolution of conflict did not always bring an end to violence against women. Women in Bosnia, for example, reported that demobilized soldiers manifested their frustration with reintegration into civilian life through domestic violence. Because post-conflict societies such as Bosnia and Rwanda were rebuilding their countries in almost every way, including the economic and judicial systems, often violence against women was either ignored or relegated to low-priority status compared with other pressing problems. Thus in Bosnia, human rights reports from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) all year contained cases of violence committed against female returnees throughout the country. Women were targeted for evictions, physical assault, and rape throughout the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Republika Srpska. One officer of the International Police Task Force observed to Human Rights Watch that women were disproportionately targeted for ethnic violence because they were considered“softer targets,” that is, much less likely to fight or be able to defend themselves.

As in the refugee camps in Tanzania, domestic violence in Bosnia increased dramatically after the war. According to experts participating in an OSCE conference on women’s rights in Bosnia, police still treated domestic violence as “a private family matter” and refused to intervene. Although reforms proposed to the Bosnian criminal code and criminal procedure code explicitly criminalized domestic violence, local activists feared that the law would not effectively protect women without extensive training for police and law enforcement officials.

Custodial violence
Women who suffered sexual and other physical abuse in custody at the hands of government agents were perhaps the most invisible and the most vulnerable, as their abusers held positions of authority and public trust. Governments as diverse as the United States and India repeatedly turned a blind eye to the abuses that those acting under cover of authority were committing. In India, attacks on Dalit women during massacres, police raids, and caste clashes were on the rise in 1998. As untouchables, Dalit women constituted the majority of prostitutes and landless workers and thus came into frequent contact with law enforcement officials. In Tamil Nadu, for example, women were the primary targets during a February 26 police raid on Dalit villages in the aftermath of clashes between Dalit and middle-caste communities. Police also engaged in instances of “hostage-taking” wherein women were arrested and tortured as a means of punishing their absconding male relatives and forcing them to surrender.

In the United States, sexual and other abuse of women in custody continued to be a serious problem for women incarcerated in local jails, state and federal prisons, and immigration detention centers. Moreover, in many instances, no adequate and transparent mechanisms existed through which victims of assault could safely and confidentially report abuse and seek an investigation without fear of significant retaliation. A January 1998 Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that more than 78,000 women were incarcerated in federal and state prisons, an increase of 6.1 percent over the previous year, compared with an increase of 4.7 percent for men. Women in custody faced abuse at the hands of prison guards, most of whom were men, who subjected the women to verbal harassment, unwarranted visual surveillance, abusive pat frisks, and sexual assault. Fifteen U.S. states do not have criminal laws prohibiting sexual abuse of women in prison. Moreover, Human Rights Watch found that in most states, guards were not trained about their duty to refrain from sexual contact with prisoners.

The vulnerability of women prisoners to sexual abuse and the failure of prison officials to intervene effectively was demonstrated in a civil suit filed by three women incarcerated in the Federal Corrections Institution in Dublin, California, which was settled in March 1998. The women plaintiffs had been placed in punitive segregation in the men’s detention center, where guards allegedly allowed male inmates into their cells at night to assault them sexually. When the women filed complaints, all three were beaten and raped, allegedly by guards, in apparent retaliation. As part of a landmark settlement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons agreed to refrain from housing any women inmates in the men’s detention center, to create a confidential mechanism for reporting sexual assault, and to review the staff training program for prison guards.

In Michigan state, women incarcerated in state prisons continued to report sexual abuse and retaliatory behavior by guards against women who reported the abuse. In particular, women who were plaintiffs in the civil rights suit jointly litigated by private lawyers and the Department of Justice reported severe retaliation by prison guards. Despite the litigation and reports of sexual abuse and retaliation, Michigan claimed that it had a “zero tolerance” policy toward sexual abuse and denied that the women had suffered retaliation because of their participation in the suit.

In direct contravention of international prohibitions against detention of asylum seekers absent compelling circumstances, the U.S. continued routinely to detain asylum seekers in Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facilities, prisons, and local jails pending the outcome of their asylum proceedings. Non-criminal asylum seekers detained in local jails and prisons were placed with the general inmate population, a violation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In this context, women asylum seekers were subjected to the same abuses that Human Rights Watch documented in state prisons, including privacy violations, abusive pat frisks, and sexual assaults.



Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch