Perspectives on Sexual Violence from Cornell’s Recent Gender & Justice Conference

At Cornell Law School’s Women & Justice Conference held on October 18-19, 2012, the law school’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, the Cornell International Human Rights Clinic, Women on Law in Southern Africa-Zambia (WLSA-Zambia) launched a report on sexual violence against girls in Zambian schools. Three of the conference participants agreed to share some of their thoughts on the event: Gertrude Chawatama, a former judge of the High Court of Zambia and current Commissioner of the Kenya Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission; Sharon Newa, Deputy Registrar of the Zambia Commercial Court; and Matrine Chuulu, Regional Coordinator of WLSA.

How do you think that the report will help to address the problem of sexual violence?

Ms. Chuulu: WLSA’s methodology is to complete regional reports. We want to produce a regional report to make comparisons between different countries. Once the Zambia report is widely disseminated and accepted, we can start to take the next step.

What, for you, has been the highlight of the conference?

Hon. Chawatama: The fact that we agreed that we have a problem and we need to do something about it. Part of problem will be resolved by us as adjudicators in the courtroom, part with initiatives outside of the courts, such as outreach and speaking to schools and communities. We must be role models for young girls, to persuade them not to give up and to create awareness.

Ms. Chuulu: It was also very interesting to hear the judges give their perspectives about what they’re doing to increase access to justice and how they act outside the box. More access helps to demystify the court system and make it more user-friendly.

From left to right: Ms. Matrine Chuulu (Regional Coordinator of WLSA), J. Sharon Newa, and J. Gertrude Chawatama.

Are there any social or cultural practices that you would like to see changed or improved, relating to sexual violence?

Hon. Newa: There is a lot of secrecy when these offenses happen. I think this is what is perpetuating the problem, because people are looking at a way to avoid embarrassment.

Ms. Chuulu: In our customary practice, a child is to be present, but not heard. That also is a factor in these cases. Also, there is little or no sexual education for girls.

Why would you say that is?

Hon. Chawatama: Women are often afraid to reveal what they know about sex because the man will turn around and blame the woman. Instead of being free with information, my grandmother used to say that if you sleep with a man, your fingers will grow.

Hon. Newa: My mother never explained sex to me. She said, what is the relevance?

Hon. Chawatama: But things are changing, times are changing. The patriarchy, most of them want to take advantage of customary practices. They know that it’s negative, but they keep it there because it’s more convenient. Sometimes it’s not even authentic customary law. For example, child marriages have been perpetuated because of their links to poverty.  It results from the circumstances people find themselves in, where the marriage of a child means one less mouth to feed.

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  1. This is a great post! I think it is also important to emphasize what we can each so as individuals to combat this pervasive culture of violence towards women. Things like using gender-neutral language and intervening when others make jokes about rape are useful reminders that no amount of gender-based slander or sexual violence is permissible.

  2. I think what these women are doing is incredibly important – the first step towards changing an established system is to show people that there really is a problem and to educate them as to what it entails. It is really interesting to hear directly from some of the people that are trying to provide solutions to the problems of sexual violence in different countries and to learn their perspectives on what needs to be done.

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