Broken promises: Why governments are failing to eliminate VAWG

Christine Hughes Gender, Violence Against Women and Girls

Women’s and feminist movements have fought hard to get laws on Violence Against Women & Girls (VAWG) passed. New Oxfam research is now adding to the growing evidence that governments are not holding up their end of the bargain, and are failing women and girls as a result.

Today, due in large part to the tenacious efforts of women’s and feminist movements, over 125 countries have Violence against Women & Girls (VAWG) laws of some sort.  This marks a huge increase from only a handful of such laws in 1990.  In a world where 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence, these laws are important.  Although laws alone will not eliminate VAWG, they send the message that VAWG is unacceptable and punishable.  And women have longer life expectancies and a lower likelihood of experiencing violence if they live in countries with VAWG laws.

VAWG laws in themselves are important, but the effective implementation and enforcement of those laws is crucial.  There is mounting evidence that many governments are not putting into action the commitments they have made.  The potential of laws to help eliminate VAWG is going unrealized in many countries because implementation is failing.  And governments are failing women and girls as a result.

A new Oxfam research report – “Legislative Wins, Broken Promises” – looks at the problem of “implementation gaps”. These are the shortfalls between government commitments as set out in laws, and on-the-ground realities for women and girls in terms of services, justice, and prevention.  Based on the principle of Due Diligence, the report includes 7 country case studies – from Benin, Bolivia, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, India, Malawi and Nicaragua – and takes a comparative look at the most apparent types of implementation gaps and the reasons for them.  It presents lessons for how to improve implementation and how to strengthen influencing, drawing on positive examples in Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic.

Law enforcement and judicial actors are not following the processes required by law that would protect survivors

The problems encountered by women and girls who experience violence will not surprise those of us who work on VAWG.  Law enforcement and judicial actors are not following the processes required by law that would protect survivors and allow them access to justice.  For instance, an interview respondent from Benin exposed the corruptive influence of some politicians: “when there’s a rape of a child in a village, it’s the congressman who starts phoning around so that the procedures aren’t followed.”  Infrastructure and services are woefully inadequate to meet survivors’ needs for support, or to handle perpetrators.  And survivors are often blamed, re-victimised, or dissuaded from using the law.  A police officer in India stated, “There is a systemic effort to dissuade her from filing a case… We don’t want a bad ending for a marriage.”

Oxfam also needs to pay attention to duty-bearers’ implementation of existing laws

Where our report adds value, is in discussing the reasons for these implementation gaps.  Attempting to pick apart “lack of political will”, the report highlights 14 explanations for what is going wrong.  Particularly notable is the detrimental influence of individual attitudes and social norms that support VAWG, and “family values” that denigrate women’s rights more generally.  They are shaping the actions of those responsible for implementing the laws in ways that are harmful to survivors. For instance, a police constable in Malawi admitted, “We don’t intervene in such issues because they are family issues and we may be blamed at the end of the day.”

Although women’s movements in some countries continue to struggle just to get VAWG legislation in place, Oxfam also needs to pay attention to duty-bearers’ implementation of existing laws, especially through support for women’s rights organisations.  Strong implementation demonstrates that governments take seriously their obligation (established in international law)  to eliminate VAWG Effective implementation also helps to shift problematic social norms. It builds trust in public institutions, inspires the struggles of women in countries where laws don’t yet exist, and reinforces the message that VAWG is not acceptable. It ensures that women and girls whose human rights have been violated receive the support they deserve.

The authors of “Freedom from Violence and the Law” put it well,  “Laws are as effective only so far as they can be implemented and rights can be claimed in practice.”  This new report adds to the evidence that those obligated to prevent and address VAWG are not doing enough to fulfil their commitments. And it also contributes to the knowledge base about what needs to be done – and has worked – to strengthen the impact of laws on the elimination of VAWG.

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lydia Zigomo

Lydia Zigomo is Oxfam International’s Global Programme Director, overseeing seven regions across the world and over 70 countries where Oxfam has a presence and programmes with partners. She is a human rights lawyer from Zimbabwe with 25 years’ experience in international development across a number of INGOs and national organisations.