Ending Violence Against Women: Why Security Institutions Matter


Today, November 25th, ICTJ joins the global observations of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the start of the “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign.” On this day, we recognize the ongoing efforts to protect women from violence in different parts of the world.

It is also a time to reflect on the many ways this deeply complex and often culturally entrenched problem is being addressed in countries reckoning with past human rights abuses. For women who have been victims of sexual or other forms of violence during armed conflict or repressive rule, peace treaties or regime change doesn’t necessarily bring an end to their suffering, or guarantee justice for crimes committed against them.

In ICTJ’s work where widespread violence has disproportionately affected women, we’ve seen how challenging it is for victims of gender-based violence to seek justice or redress: the myriad of obstacles facing women in the justice system often deter them from telling authorities about crimes in the first place, preventing any future efforts to see justice done.

Public institutions—including police forces and the judicial system—have a key role to play to ensure women are protected from abuse and that gender-based violence does not go unreported or unpunished. Even simple reforms of police at the basic level, such as ensuring victims can speak to a female officer at a police station, or covering the cost of basic medical exams, can make a huge difference to make victims feel secure. Police officers who are implicated in incidents of sexual violence should be thoroughly vetted, and those taking statements from victims—including police officers, lawyers or other legal authorities—should receive detailed training on how to conduct the interview without risking re-traumatization.

While changing the ways of bureaucratic systems can be cumbersome, without such change other progress to protect women’s rights is at risk. Citizens’ trust in public institutions forms the foundation for society’s transition to peace and the rule of law.

Spotlight: Reforming the National Police in Kenya

Kenya is still dealing with the repercussions of post-election violence that erupted across the counrty in 2007 and included many cases of rapes and sexual assaults. Kenyan police officers were widely implicated in incidents of sexual violence, either by sexually assaulting women or failing to fulfill their duty to investigate such cases during the crisis and up until now. However, not a single case has been prosecuted.

The disturbing impact of police attitudes towards sexual and gender-based violence was reflected in a recent ICTJ report, The Accountability Gap on Sexual Violence in Kenya: Reforms and Initiatives Since the Post-Election Crisis. Of the 48 women interviewed, only nine had reported their sexual assault to the police.

Endemic corruption and a culture of tolerance towards violence against women combine to protect these officers from accountability. And many victims are afraid to come forward, as they fear social stigmatization and additional abuse from police.

Those who did not report to the police attributed their inaction to the hostility they expected from police officers. For example, one woman reported:

“The police in Molo were harsh and cruel. It was also shameful, being an old woman . . . I was embarrassed to tell my husband, and my daughters were also raped. They left for Nairobi and have never returned.”

ICTJ’s Gender Justice Program is assisting the National Police Services Commission of Kenya and the country’s civil society to reform police practices. The police vetting process offers the best chance to remove perpetrators from the forces, as well as those at higher levels who tolerate sexual violence.

In June and October, ICTJ held training workshops to enhance public awareness of Kenya’s police vetting program and how to engage with it, as well as to provide concrete recommendations to improve its capacity to reveal police misconduct related to sexual violence.

Read more about ICTJ's work in Kenya in the latest ICTJ Program report here

Photo: A woman looks into a polling station before voting in a general election in Ilbissil, Kenya, March 4, 2013 (AP Photo/Riccardo Gangale)