When Having Sex With Your Wife Is Seen As A 'Human Right', It's No Wonder Women Worldwide Don't Trust In Justice

From the Bristol judge to Belfast, Ghana, America and India, outdated laws and deep-rooted sexist attitudes tip the scales in favour of abusers
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This week, a judge in Bristol suggested – apparently in all seriousness – that a man had a “fundamental human right” to have sex with his wife. His comment rightly provoked outrage.

But the comment also pointed to a wider, hidden crisis; one which stalks justice systems around the world, and affects nearly half the population.

An estimated one in three women and girls experiences violence in their lifetime. This includes beating, catcalling, rape, stalking, FGM, forced marriage and more.

This violence, collectively, is one of the most widespread human rights abuses in the world. Yet still – even in the era of #MeToo – millions of these women and girls will never report the crime, or receive justice.

That’s why from Bristol to Belfast to Accra, from the US to India to Scandinavia, many women simply don’t trust the justice system.

All too often, outdated laws and deep-rooted sexist attitudes – such as those exhibited by that Bristol judge – conspire with poverty to tip the scales in favour of abusers.

In the words of Irene Aborchie-Nyahe, a lawyer for women’s rights in Ghana: “Everybody’s rights can be violated, both rich and poor. The difference is that poor women can’t access justice.”

In the countries where ActionAid works, the justice gap kicks in early on, when a survivor living in poverty tells a family member about something that’s been done to them. They’ll be dismissed by a father figure who believes women and girls’ bodies exist for others to exploit and control; or by the mother who can’t see another way out for her daughter. Later, they might be laughed at or even punished by a policeman who doesn’t recognise that the law has been broken.

Ghana is a good example. The country’s Domestic Violence Act, passed in 2007, offers strong protection for survivors of abuse – in theory. It says that women or girls who’ve been abused at home are entitled to a free medical examination and report, and free assistance at the police station to help build a case against their abuser. But thanks to a chronic lack of resources, most hospitals and police stations simply don’t follow the law. The result is that survivors – most of whom have no income of their own – often don’t report the crime, or don’t get the support they need; and the perpetrator goes free.

And worse still, those women who fight against the odds to get their case to court usually meet with fresh obstacles. Too often, they bravely stand up in a room full of strangers and tell their distressing, traumatic story – and yet still, they are not believed or taken seriously.

We work with survivors to help them claim their right to support, campaign for better laws, and help communities learn how to prevent violence against women and girls. But progress will not be made until those with more power to do so come on board.

We all need to recognise the damage that the justice deficit is causing, and take real steps to change it. That means tackling patriarchal values head-on; no longer siding with abusers; and above all, listening to survivors.

Women and girls everywhere are calling for the broken justice systems that punish women to be fixed. Governments need to start listening.

ActionAid is campaigning to fix broken justice systems around the world which protect abusers and punish women. Find out more at actionaid.org.uk/justice.

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