By Letitia Anderson
"GBV Offices" reads a small sign on a door of the Rwandan National Police Headquarters. These three letters hold great significance, designating the Gender Based Violence Desk Office, where police personnel are specifically trained to address sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The Gender Desk includes an interview room to enable women to speak in confidence with a trained officer; a nationwide toll-free hotline service for reporting SGBV; and a UN Women-UNDP-funded adviser. It signifies a national shift in justice sector policy — enhancing the capacity of law enforcement officials to apply human rights standards to cases of violence against women, in a country racked by rape and genocide within recent memory, and where domestic violence is now particularly pervasive in the provinces, according to Rwandan Police.
The Gender Desk, launched in May 2005 under the framework of the joint UN Women-UNDP Project, "Enhancing Protection from Gender-based Violence," took on the challenge of strengthening the former Child and Family Protection Unit — working closely with the Judicial Police Unit that previously responded to sexual and gender-based violence cases and now consults with the Gender Desk to refer relevant cases, and the Community Policing Unit responsible for sensitizing the community on their role in eliminating SGBV.
According to Deputy Commissioner of Police Mary Gahonzire, technical support from UN Women "has facilitated quick reporting and response to cases of violence and increased awareness among the police and community of gender-based violence as a human rights issue." Investigating officers have been trained in victim empowerment, psychosocial support and victim/survivor protection. Motorcycles, provided by UN Women-UNDP, enable them to respond rapidly. Moreover, as part of a campaign to address the root causes of violence against women, the Gender Desk has organized sensitization seminars and led efforts to raise awareness through the media.
As a result, information about the Gender Desk is gradually reaching the public. This has enabled it to prevent and respond to crimes of SGBV, as well as to facilitate data collection across the country. Most of the 317 calls received between January 2006 and March 2007 were made at night by neighbours asking police to assist a battered wife. Other reported incidents include rape by husbands, psychological and verbal abuse by husbands, women being denied access to and control over property, and mothers being denied custody of their children. In 2006, the Rwandan Police referred 1,777 rape cases to the prosecution, resulting in 803 convictions. The Gender Desk helped to investigate these cases and ensure evidence was available for court proceedings.
In one of the first cases reported to the Gender Desk, a distraught mother discovered that her 14-year old daughter had been repeatedly raped by her guardian. Not knowing where else to turn, she contacted a UN Women Programme Officer who referred her to the Gender Desk hotline. They arranged for her free medical treatment, in the course of which evidence was preserved. Upon certifying that the victim had been sexually abused, the Gender Desk forwarded the case to the Ministry of Justice to initiate proceedings. The accused was arrested and taken into custody. Two of UN Women's partners have assisted the victim and her family: Profemmes Twese Hamwe and the Forum for Activists against Torture (FACT) have provided support and legal advice.
Yet, responding to SGBV is only half of the challenge. In addition, the Gender Desk has developed proactive prevention strategies. When a Rwandan woman contacted UN Women about fears for her safety after an estranged husband attempted to forcibly remove belongings from her home, they referred her to the Gender Desk, where the trained officers responded swiftly. They contacted her husband, warning him that until an amicable separation agreement had been reached, if he came near the house, called his wife or even sent a text message to her phone, they would arrest him immediately. The woman has not reported any further threats or disturbances.
Such proactive measures have been rare in Rwanda, where violence against women has long been shrouded in silence and shame. The partnership between the police and UN Women sends a different message: women's rights are a national priority. This is empowering police to secure women's safety and emboldening women to report abuse.
This improved response aims to break the cycle of trauma and isolation, whereby survivors fear for their safety, which prevents them from seeking redress, and thus perpetuates impunity and the prevalence of violence against women. Efforts to break this cycle have mobilized the entire justice sector. Rwandan Commissioner General of Police Andrew Rwigamba has stated that in this struggle "UN Women is our main partner and supporter."
Rwanda — 13 years ago the scene of a horrific genocide, in which an estimated 250,000 women were raped — today stands poised to lead best practices in the fight against sexual and gender-based violence. The sign of progress heralded by the Gender Desk initiative is also a sign of the times: where women constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, rebuilding their lives is essential to rebuilding the nation. Equitable, respectful gender relations are increasingly understood as vital to replacing a climate of violence and impunity with an inclusive and sustainable peace. The sign "GBV Offices" denotes increased public attention to gender-based violence, which is hopefully — for Rwanda and the region — a sign of things to come.
(Story Date: 18 April 2007)