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International Affairs

Gender-Based Violence and Mediation, a Non Sequitur?

Beach in Lomé, the capital of Togo.

I recently was offered a position as a mediator in Lome, Togo. The position would have entailed me to mediate cases of gender-based violence. I refused it for practical reasons (pay, work conditions, length, even though the beach looked nice enough), yet it brought me to question the role of mediation in the context of gender-based violence.

Mediation often can help opposing parties manage conflict, identify interests and corresponding options to their problems. Often, major misunderstandings can be caused by simple communication problems. The main advantage of mediation is that it is not a zero-sum game. If a settlement is reached, both parties gain from the agreement.

Rwanda forms an interesting African example on the use of mediation to regulate disputes. Separate from the Gacaca courts, mobilized to tackle issues surrounding crimes committed during the 1994 genocide, there also exist the Abunzi courts. Composed of a certain number of mediators, they are used for small claims such as cattle rustling or cases dealing with inheritance. They have proved to be an interesting way to combine traditional conflict resolution mechanisms with modern judicial systems. They allow for venting and give satisfaction to many individuals who subsequently feel that their cases have been heard. Even though many challenges remain, since there is often a lack of procedural and technical knowledge by the mediators themselves, they are a cheap and pragmatic tool to address the various grievances of the common individual.

However, they do not deal with sexual violence.

Tackling gender-based violence is quite different, since it often involves vast power imbalances between the victim and the perpetrator and carries its load of traumatic experiences. Many institutions, such as the UNFPA and OXFAM, argue that mediation is inapropriate and should not be used in cases of serious violence.

Power imbalances between the perpetrator and victim exist

Bringing a victim of rape and a perpetrator together voluntarily is already a feat, and one can wonder what interests both parties have in communicating after such traumatic experiences, especially with regards to the victim. There are mechanisms available to try to rebalance the relationship during the mediation. For example, by setting the place and time of the mediation, a mediator can help change the power dynamics of the situation. However, the challenge remains.

On the other hand, sexual violence is inexcusable and acts as a real impediment to the full participation of women in the very fabric of society.  Gender-based violence has also been linked to other very serious phenomena , such as increased rates of HIV-AIDS transmission.

Aren’t we legitimizing gender-based violence by mediating such cases?

Mediation is not used with regards to murder or serious bodily harm. Why should it be used in cases of rape, or other serious sexual violence?

Sadly, in a development context, there is often no alternative to mediation. The court system in many African states is not the most efficient and often does not tackle cases of domestic abuse and other forms of violence. Mediation therefore is placed in an uncomfortable position, since it has to deal with issues often too powerful for it to efficiently work.

Yet some justice is better than no justice at all.

Maybe simply allowing the victim to express her point of view will help her cope through the process. Naming and shaming the offender could also be used in order to prevent future behavior. Mediation in gender-based violence therefore seems to have a more community and “preventive” aspect of sorts than actually dealing with individual grievances.

Mediation also highlights the fact that the state is not the only stakeholder and that other societal actors have a role in regulating conflict and providing governance in African society. Mobilizing women to act as mediators, for example, can also be an important step in addressing gender concerns.

Community mobilization at work!

The emphasis should therefore be placed on good leadership to insure the long-term stability and the success of the preventive effect of mediation. Efforts should be made to identify, encourage and cultivate a relationship with local leaders. They are often the ones with the required frame of mind and knowledge to succeed at getting things done on the ground. Effective community mobilization and long-term work in gender-based violence cannot exist without the participation of local stakeholders. Those in turn can help change attitudes towards gender-based violence and get the courts more involved in tackling the issue.


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