Opinion: The long arm of gender bias

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No matter how many times we hear it, the fact that one in three women globally will experience violence still shocks us, as it should. But global figures hide regional inequalities. Zoom in on the Pacific Islands and this number doubles. In some countries it is as high as 80%; narrow down to specific communities and you reach 100%. That's every single woman.
 
Much has been written on the causes of men's violence (and the majority are men) against women:  gender inequality and discrimination are considered to be at the root. These are influenced by, and serve to maintain, the power imbalances between men and women. The rigid gender norms that prescribe women's roles in society also uphold particular forms of masculinity that promote and excuse male aggression.
 
It's an horrific catch-22 that the drivers of violence against women likewise prevent women from accessing justice, protection and equality before the law. Discriminatory gender stereotypes of women as pure or loose, provocateur or submissive, the property of men; and of men as the breadwinner, sexual animal, head of the family, or lover in a jealous rage (boys will be boys) continue to surface in court-rooms globally. The results, for the victims, can be devastating.  
 
In April 2013 Neiman attacked his wife Margaret with a machete. She spent two weeks in hospital, lost her left forearm and gained a permanent disability in her right.  Neiman was arrested, prosecuted for assault causing grievous bodily harm. As punishment he received a suspended sentence, was released immediately and ordered to live with his wife and children.
 
Why? According to the Judge, Neiman was the breadwinner. He was also provoked by jealousy, having heard a rumour that Margaret was having an affair. Margaret herself asked for him to be released to help her look after their two young children.
 
This is not an isolated case. We recently analysed 908 criminal cases of gender based violence in the Pacific Island region to measure the effect of gender discrimination on sentencing.  
 
What we found was that gender discrimination affected the sentence in over 50% of cases; where gender discrimination was present the perpetrator's sentence was two to three years shorter than in other cases.
 
The perpetrator was three times more likely to be released immediately, on a non-custodial sentence.
 
As for the victims: 40% were younger than 15.
 
In the cases studied perpetrators were receiving lighter or suspended sentences because their wife had argued with them, because their wife had left them, or there was a rumour of infidelity. Sentences were reduced because the families had performed a customary reconciliation ceremony, ceremonies which are imbued with those same gender power imbalances, failing to provide redress to the victim herself.  In cases of sexual assault a victim's rapist would receive a lighter sentence simply because the victim was not a virgin at the time, or was known to be of loose morals, or failed to report the incident earlier or had been drinking with the defendant earlier that day. In many cases a sentence was suspended so the perpetrator could continue to financially support his family.
 
Of course this is not news, nor is it confined to the Pacific Islands. But Australia is the largest provider of aid to the Pacific Islands. Australia is also, for the first time, talking about violence against women, learning the barriers, the problems, learning what to do. Aid is about knowledge and skills sharing as well as funding.
 
Providing equal access to justice for victim/survivors is just one aspect of a multi-faceted approach that must be taken in order to reduce the alarming rate of violence against women and girls in the Pacific, but it is an important one. Eradicating gender discrimination in the judicial system, be it through education, law reform, monitoring or something else, will not only provide greater protection for women, but also ensure they are treated as equals before the law, a fundamental right for any human being and particularly for those who are most vulnerable.

By Emily Christie

DLA Piper lawyer Emily Christie presented a report co-authored by the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination and DLA Piper on the sentencing practices in sexual & gender-based violence cases in the Solomon Islands for Human Rights Day yesterday.