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Opinions of Monday, 27 August 2018

Columnist: Joseph Kobla Wemakor

Backing CoPASH to deliver on its mandate: A giant step towards helping Ghana achieve SDG 5

The gargantuan rise in violence being perpetrated against our women and girls in Ghana today coupled with the inability of victims to get justice and support are indeed a great cause of worry, giving a strong caveat that something radical ought to be done urgently else Ghana is likely to miss out on achieving the SDGs targets.

The Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

Under its goal 5 is a clear target set up by the United Nations Development Programme(UNDP) to be achieved by all the 193 UN member states which mainly focused on eliminating violence against women while goal 16 has a target to promote the rule of law and equal access to justice.

The issue of human rights abuse in Ghana in its current stage has reached a crescendo with violence being perpetrated against women and girls at an alarming rate.

As a result, there’s a seemingly growing fear among most concerned citizens as to whether Ghana's effort towards achieving the SDG5 can be achieved looking at the gloomy picture on the ground.

A check at statistics from the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service indicated that between the years 2000 and 2013, more than 177,840 cases of Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) including rape, defilement, incest, and compulsory marriage were reported.

It also proven that between 2013 and 2016 over 5,653 cases of rape and defilement were reported to DOVVSU which fingered men as the main perpetrators.

Unfortunately, out of that huge number, only 327 perpetrators were convicted by the court of law till date while other cases are still pending investigation.

The question is, for how long will these cases continue to remain under investigation while justice for the victims continue to be delayed if not denied?

In addition, Ghana has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the West and Central Africa region with 1 in 5 girls being married before their 16th birthday. Regretfully, about 32% of these cases are women and girls aged 15-24 and they think that wife beating can be justified due to socio-cultural norms and stereotypes (DHS 2014).

To add to that, surprisingly, Ghana stands tall among 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) is still prevalent, despite efforts to put a complete stop to the practice.

What is even more shocking to note is that in spite of existence of a varying laws, policies and frameworks that meet international best practices as well as comprehensive programmes and interventions, these statistics still persists.

It is obvious to note that Ghana continues to be stared in the face with myriads of human rights abuse issues with Sexual and Gender Based Violence and Harmful practices topping the lists of crimes in larger proportions. These issues continue to dominate and are vividly highlighted daily in media reportages including both traditional and electronic media outlets.

A typical example is the unfortunate case of a nursing mother who was assaulted by a police officer in a banking hall whose video had gone viral on social media witnessed by the public not too long ago in Accra. In the disturbing video, the policeman who is supposed to maintain public law and order in every situation was seen virtually punching and slapping the nursing mother in a banking hall.

Recently too, we’ve also witnessed a pathetic news report on the Ghana web news portal about the sad story of 12-year-old Ubaida, (Kayayei) who had to flee away from her hometown in the north down to south in attempt to evade forced marriage and earn a living only to fall a victim of rape to some miscreants who ply the streets of Accra. According to the report, the unfortunate girl was not just raped once but several times, yet no action was taken to deal with the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

Similarly, not too long ago, our attention has been drawn to another news item; the harrowing story of Esther Oppong, 30, (victim) who was allegedly drugged and raped by her employer who turned round to accuse her of theft leading to her incarceration at the Nsawam Prison.

Her story was widely circulated on various news channels including the Ghana web portal which drawn attention from sympathizers from all walks of life.

Obviously, the Kayayei phenomenon is also another big example of violence being perpetrated against women and girls which is a major concern to all. In this instance several young women and girls between the ages of 13-17 who migrated from the 3 northern regions down some cities in the country in search of greener pastures were meant to undergo gross brutality, discrimination and variety of violence and sexual abuses meted to them without any defense from the law.

Finally, I’m sure most people have not forgotten so soon about the famous case of sexual assault brought to the public’s attention when it was reported that four teachers of Ejisuman Senior High School sexually assaulted and harassed some female students. The contentious issues which has developed somewhere between June- July had gotten many tongues-wagging calling for perpetrators(teachers) to be punished severely to serve as deterrent to others instead of being transferred from one school to the other.

In fact, many of such cases exist with most perpetrators either left of the hook or yet to be punished, while others remain unknown because they were not reported by the victims.

Many others were also treated with disdain due to circumstances best known to the law enforcement agencies.

Sexual and gender-based violence(SGBV) refers to any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will and is based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. It includes physical, emotional or psychological and sexual violence, and denial of resources or access to services. SGBV includes threats of violence and coercion and is a severe violation of several human rights which inflicts harm on women, girls, men and boys.

According to Wikipedia, gender based violence encompasses a large variety of crimes committed like rape, sexual harassment, stalking, human trafficking, domestic abuse, genital mutilation, and forced marriage and prostitution.

It further explained that although much gender-based violence is directed towards women and, the terms are often treated as if they were interchangeable, gender violence is not exclusively used to refer to violence against women. Thus, violence against men, boys, transgender people, or people targeted due to LGBTQI status can also be classified as gender based violence.

Gender is high predictor of rape, sexual assault, and domestic abuse.

According to RAINN, 99% cases of rape are committed by men, whether the person targeted is female, male or a member of LBGTQI community.

It should be noted that government is obligated to address, prevent, investigate, and punish domestic violence perpetrators, under the international human rights law.

In a bid to achieve its mandate, government has established DOVVSU as a department within the Ghana police service to protect the rights and promote the welfare of women and children by preventing and prosecuting crimes committed against them.

The unit provides the main entry point into the justice system but recognizes that its efforts are more effective when it works in partnership with other ministries and non-governmental organizations(NGOs).

Although DOVVSU has been instrumental in bringing a once private matter into the public sphere, its inability to bite the bullet and prosecute offenders has been called into question lately due to the unsavory situation on the ground.

DOVVSU today can boast of having eighty-seven offices across the country and plans for continued growth.

But the question being posed is that with all these facilities in place, why is DOVVSU still failing to deliver on its mandate of prosecuting offenders of domestic and sexual violence crimes including supporting victims?

Why is violence against women and girls still continue to rise in astronomical proportions? Indeed, a million dollar questions many Ghanaians are demanding answers for.

According to the National Coordinator of DOVVSU, Chief Supt. Owusuwaa Kyeremeh, failure on part of her outfit to effectively prosecute its agenda among other things, was due to lack of ‘One-Stop Centre’ for the unit to operate within which will effectively enhance its work to provide victims with privacy and improved services including counselling, health, psychotherapy and expedited processes leading up to timely justice.

Global statistics indicates that, 1 in 3 women and girls experience violence in their lifetime, that is one too many. It happens in every country and every society.

Violence against women and girls happens at home, in schools, on the streets, at work, on the internet and in the refugee camps. It happens during war, and even in the absence of war.

It should however also be noted that when it comes to eliminating violence against women and girls, a lot of barriers exists which goes beyond the ambit of DOVVSU as a unit mandated by law to prosecute its agenda.

A typical example is, the culture of silence which is no doubt an impediment to efforts towards ending violence against women and girls. As a result, too often violence is normalized and goes unpunished because of failure on part of women themselves to report these issues for the offenders to be punished.

Violence against women and girls is often perpetuated by practices defended by some community members on the basis of tradition, culture, religion and superstition. Some of these practices include female genital mutilation/cutting(FMG/C) and early marriage.

Unfortunately, such harmful traditional practices are underpinned by social norms, the rules of behavior that people in a group adhere to because “they believe that they expected to do so that others can do so”. Not even to talk about the home where domestic violence often rears its ugly head to the large extent women are not supposed to report whenever assaulted by their husbands, but rather expected to remain silent upon belief that the issue is a domestic affair hence the need to resolve it at home.

This goes to buttress the point that although DOVVSU is mandated by law among other things to prosecute offenders as well as protect and rescue survivors of SGBV/Harmful practices, it cannot fight the menace all alone owing to high magnitude of cases at hand.

It is in this light Her Excellency, the Second Lady of the Republic of Ghana, Mrs. Samira Bawumia with support from the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA) Ghana on Tuesday August 14, 2018 launched the Coalition of People Against SGBV & Harmful Practices (CoPASH) on the theme: “Working together to end sexual and gender-based violence in Ghana”.

The campaign was launched with a clarion call on all and sundry to intensify efforts to end sexual and gender based violence in the country.

As the name implies, CoPASH is a group of agencies, organizations and individuals who are passionate about the rights of women and girls, resources for SGBV victims throughout the nation.

Its purpose among others is provide an advocacy platform to draw attention to the national response on issues pertaining SGBV and Harmful Practices including case management and increasing prevention efforts in the country.

Through the coalition, the Second Lady expects to bring high level advocacy and visibility to interventions aimed at preventing and managing gender issues in Ghana such as Child Marriage, Female Genital Mutilation(FGM), Sexual and Gender Based Violence(SGBV) and Violence Against Women and Girls(VAWG).

It is upon realization that Sexual and Gender Based Violence undermines the health, dignity, security and freedom of its victims who usually suffer sexual and reproductive health consequences, including forced and unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, and even death, yet the incidence of SGBV is perpetuated by a culture of silence. Thus the coalition is expected to open vital conversations to ending sexual and gender base violence in Ghana.

In her speech at the launch, Mrs. Samira Bawumia lamented the startling statistics recorded by DOVVSU citing gross violence being perpetrated against girls and women in the country. She therefore called for a concerted effort on part of all stakeholders and Ghanaians to rally behind her and the coalition to end SGBV and Harmful practices in Ghana.

According to her, a lot had been done to address the menace, but however regretted interventions had been in different ways which was not suitable to bring desired result.

Explaining the rationale behind CoPASH in an interview with the UNFPA Country Representative, Mr. Niyi Ojuolape, Mrs. Bawumia expressed her belief in the viability of the collaboration with UNFPA saying “I believe CoPASH will be the game-changer in efforts towards ending sexual and gender-based violence”.

In her presentation, The UN Resident Coordinator for Ghana, Ms. Christine Evans-Klock called on all partners and stakeholders working to end gender-based violence to move beyond advocacy and make laws work. She averred that “having laws and raising advocacy is not just enough”, adding that we need to address issues to of prevention and guaranteeing justice to victims.

In conclusion, she hinted that it is her hope to see bold and broad coalition, CoPASH Ghana work to provide solutions to end the ordeal of victims of gender-based violence and other harmful practices.

Chief Superintendent Owusuwaa Kyeremeh, National Coordinator of DOVVSU in a presentation on “The One stop Centre, a Must Have” indicated that the one-stop centre would bring all relevant service providers under one roof such that when a victim walks in, all their needs would be met on the premises.

She revealed the DOVVSU one-stop has been under construction for the past 10 years and therefore called on the government and other stakeholders to ensure an immediate and successful completion of the building to enhance their work.

She averred that the building when completed would contain facilities such as a temporal shelter, private interview rooms, conference centre, adult cells, juvenile cells, court, children play area, cafeteria, among others, which would help prevent re-victimization and ensure efficient service delivery, guaranteed privacy, free medical and counselling services.

Finally, she appealed to the second Lady to use her influence to help raise funds for the successful completion of the centre which started almost a decade ago. Her plea instantly caught the attention of the second Lady who pledged to work through the coalition to raise funds to support the early completion of the centre.

Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, a former First Lady attributed part of the problem of SGBV to screening of violent movies on the country’s television networks especially at inappropriate times. Condemning the act with urgency, she charged the media to promote the responsible use of press freedom.

In her remarks, Hajia Aliu Mahama, Minister of Local Government and Rural Development, noted that the activism against gender injustice had waned.

She therefore lauded Mrs. Bawumia and UNFPA and urged the youth and Civil Society Organizations, NGOs, other youth activist groups as well as all and sundry to back CoPASH to deliver effectively on its mandate.

At the launch which brought together notable personalities across various sectors in the country including officers of UN Agencies and development partners, youth activists’ groups, CSOs, NGOs, Government officials and parliamentarians at the plush Kempinski Gold Coast Hotel in Accra, various speakers including the Minister of Health, Mr. Kwaku Agyemang-Manu took turns to make their presentations known, all pointing towards achievement of one common goal-ending SGBV and Harmful Practices in Ghana.

So if the Second Lady can think of such noble initiative which is equally receiving full backing of a whole distinguished UN organization like the UNFPA all geared towards solving a problem we all consider as magnitude in strength and its entirety, which one-man can never fight, then I trust that we have no option at all as an individual, a group, a family or a nation than to support her call towards achieving her mandate.

It should also be noted with concern that if the prominent personalities above (including officials of UN Agencies) who took turns to address audience at the launch of CoPASH can strongly advocate, highlight the issues and continue to support calls to end these disturbing issues of violence being perpetrated against our women and girls in our country Ghana today, then for us citizens of this country has no option at all than to rally behind CoPASH towards achieving its objectives.

I believe supporting the clarion call of the Second Lady which is also being intensified on both international and national levels towards ending SGBV and harmful practices especially against women and girls in Ghana is likewise a fight that would increase Ghana’s chances of achieving the SDGs if not in its entirety, but at least goal 5 which targeted eliminating violence against women.

Violence against women and girls in all forms must be stopped at all cost. It is a destroyer of life. The promise of Sustainable Development Goals – to leave no one behind – cannot be fulfilled without ending violence against women.

But it can only be achieved if we all put our hands round the wheel to push the agenda of CoPASH to a successful end.

I believe we must also take up the responsibility to build the capacity and educate our women to always consider breaking the silence on issues of violence being perpetrated against them wherever it occurs, be it at home, in schools, on the streets, at work, on the internet and in the refugee camps or even in churches which is also an agenda of CoPASH.

Let me take this opportunity to sigh a word of caution to our men out there to always endeavor to desist from perpetrating violence against girls and women, respect their dignity and rights as well.

The rights of our women and girls should not be taken for granted owing to the significant roles they play towards nation building.

They are to also note that if Ghana can be taken as a serious nation which is committed to ensuring peace and development at all levels, it would depend on them largely to treat women fairly as deserved by all.

The SDGs goal 5 targets eliminating violence against women, while goal 16 has a target to promote the rule of law and equal access to justice. To achieve both goals, I believe we need to galvanize support for the police force in their quest to achieve their mandate, especially DOVVSU with the completion of the one-stop centre building including provision of other working gadgets to enhance their work

In fact, Ghana deserves better; a future without SGBV and harmful practices, a future where our children can live in peace and harmony to achieve their dreams and God-given assignments on earth.

We also need to embark upon campaigns to expose sheer magnitude of sexual harassment and other forms of violence that women everywhere suffer, every day which is also vividly encapsulated in the mandate of CoPASH.

In conclusion, giving equal voice, backing calls for action and commitments fully towards support for CoPASH in its gender agenda, I strongly believe is a giant step not only towards ending the SGBV and Harmful Practices in Ghana but would also go a long way towards improving Ghana’s chances of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal 5 and 16 targets.

The writer is a Human Rights Activist and member of CoPASH

Email: wemakorj@gmail.com