Skip to content

Cherie Blair

Twitter Facebook

Speeches & Articles

Recent entries


Gender Based Violence, An Obstacle to Development

Rwanda, February 2007

It is a real privilege for me to be back in Rwanda and to be with you to celebrate the remarkable achievements of its people and in particular its women. What has been achieved here in Rwanda over the last...

It is a real privilege for me to be back in Rwanda and to be with you to celebrate the remarkable achievements of its people and in particular its women.

What has been achieved here in Rwanda over the last decade or so symbolises the indestructibility of the human spirit. Few countries in our history have found themselves in such despair. Few countries have, with such determination, tried to put this terrible past behind them.

I am proud that is the women of Rwanda who are in the forefront of building this new beginning for their country. I am particularly proud to be sharing a platform with my friend Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda and Eileen Sirleaf the first ever African woman to be elected President of her country.

Through your example and the faith put in you by all the people of this country, you are sending a message of hope across Africa and the world.

And I am here today to talk about a problem which affects every country, every culture and every community in our world. Wherever you look, the scandal of gender violence raises its ugly head.

Everyone may have the basic human right to live in safety, a right reflected in all the major international human rights treaties. But as we know the gap between these rights and the reality for millions of women is stark.

Of course, gender violence plays a dreadful part in Rwanda’s tragedy. But I know from when I first started practicing as a lawyer back in Britain thirty years ago that violence against women affects all countries.

As any young lawyer in any country will tell you, the first years are a steep learning curve. It is a time when you find many of your certainties about the law that you learnt at college and the preconceptions about the society in which you live are challenged.

But nothing shocked me more as a young lawyer than what I learnt about the scale and nature of domestic violence.

I found myself regularly sent to represent clients trying to get injunctions against those who attacked them. I heard about the bullying behind closed doors, the routine beatings, women attacked even when heavily pregnant. Tragically, one client of mine was eventually murdered by her partner.

I quickly realized that this violence can take the form of emotional or psychological abuse as well as physical assault and that these threats and denigration may, in certain cases, be as harmful as actual violence.

More recently, as a judge, I have seen just how hard it is for an abused woman to give evidence against her abusing husband and how hard it is not to give in to his violent pressure on her - and perhaps her children too - to withdraw that evidence. It is sobering to realise that behind the closed doors of homes everywhere, in the place where women have the right to feel most safe, horrific abuse is a daily reality.

This violence was not simply the result of drink or drugs, nor was it confined to the poor or even to one sex. Domestic violence is about power and the breakdown and distortion of an intimate relationship. It’s about the desire of one partner to dominate and control the other.

While domestic violence is found across all age groups and social strata, it is clear that certain risk factors increase the likelihood of domestic violence. The prime risk factor is being female - women are far more likely to experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, more likely to experience repeat victimisation, more likely to be injured and to seek medical help and more likely to be frightened and upset.

And just as domestic violence is not restricted to one class or one gender, nor is it restricted to one society. Domestic violence is a global problem and often a hidden one. It is found in all countries and cultures and as historically been unacknowledged or treated as a matter of private behaviour rather than the concern of the State. This attitude has to be changed if we are ever to tackle this problem properly.

And there are welcome signs, at least, that attitudes are changing. Certainly back in Britain, over the last three decades there has been a comprehensive effort in law to tackle the abuse of women and children - on each occasion, I am proud to say, under a Labour Government.

Most recently, we have seen successful efforts to enable victims of domestic violence to get protection from the courts much quicker than in the past by streamlining legal processes and setting up specialist courts to tackle these problems.

Thankfully in Britain, it is not just the law that has been improved since I started practicing as a lawyer. We have also seen a transformation in attitude to domestic violence by the police and other authorities - and across the community as a whole.

Today in the UK all the relevant agencies both in the criminal justice system and in the wider public services treat domestic violence as a serious crime. Rather than downplaying the offence as “just a domestic incident” as they might have in the past, the UK courts treat the fact that violence takes place in the home as something which makes the crime more serious, not less.

There are more refuges to provide sanctuaries but demand is great. That’s true as well of the specialist help and support to restore their own lost sense of self-esteem that many victims need. Their children too often need specialist help to come to terms with the frightening things they have heard and seen.

And these cultural changes, helped by the media, have altered society’s attitude to this dreadful crime. No decent person now believes domestic violence is right. No one believes it is not anyone’s else’s concern. The idea that women should keep quiet about what happens at home, all too common just a few decades ago, has been successfully challenged. It’s now out in the open at last.

But for all this progress, domestic violence still occurs far too often in Britain as it does elsewhere in the world. As does violence against women including rape which takes place outside marriage or lasting relationships.

Here too there are also real problems to overcome including how to obtain enough evidence to gain a prosecution and how to prevent a victim’s reputation being ruined even though she was the one who was attacked.

I have to say I feel a little uncomfortable talking about the problems we face in Britain - real as they are - here today where so many people have sufferered so terribly. I do so not to belittle in any way the horror of what took place in Rwanda in the all too recent past but to show, that while the scale and nature of the problems here dwarf those back home the impact on the individual is similar and the challenges for our legal systems, for women and decent people of all sexes are similar.

I am all too aware from my own visit here to Rwanda with Laura Bush in 2005 and from my sobering visit yesterday to a project run by the British Charity SURF the work of the British Charity SURF who's centre at Kamonyi I hope to visit tomorrow of the scale of suffering of Rwandan women.

We all know how during the Rwandan genocide, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence were weapons to humiliate and demoralize women, their families, and their communities. Although the exact number of survivors of Sexual Violence committed during the genocide is not known, it is estimated that 250,000 women were raped and 30,000 pregnancies occurred from rape.

I had the privilege of meeting some of the survivors of this human catastrophe recently at home in Britain. The stories they told me were immensely moving and painful. One women, the victim of multiple rape, told me of her intense and continuing pain even though, unlike some of those with physical injuries, her suffering was not visible.

It would be some slight comfort if we could believe that what happened to many women in Rwanda, although almost beyond comprehension in its scale, was unique. But it is not.

It is just one of the tragic facts of life that rape is used as an instrument of war. For instance, Amnesty International records that at least 40,000 female civilians, girls and women, have been raped over the last six years in the DRC. It is a call for action that the plight of women and girls in the DRC and in Darfur today so tragically mirrors the sexual violence here in Rwanda.

Nor by any means is such inhumanity restricted to Africa in recent years. We have seen it in countries as far apart as Bosnia and East Timor. Younger women and adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to gender-based violence. Nearly 50 per cent of all sexual assaults worldwide are against girls 15 years or younger.

The World need to act to ensure that victims here and elsewhere achieve justice. We need to put more effort into and to make it less painful for victims to take their cases to court. A prosecutorial response to such alarming sexual violence is vital if any semblance of justice is to be done. And more and more women, with the right support, do want to take their cases to court.

According to a counsellor interviewed by Human Rights Watch an international NGO who works with victims of sexual violence: “Many women I speak to want to take their case to justice. They say, ‘I wish he would be punished today’. When you explain to them that they can conceal their identity in court, they say bravely: ‘I have nothing to lose. I am ready to stand in court and say openly what happened.”

This is why we must step up our campaign and increase our support to make this happen. We have to ensure that the sexual exploitation and violence against women features high on the list of cases before the International Criminal Court. We also need to ensure that domestically Courts including the gacaca courts here in Rwanda take rape cases seriously and that the interests of victims are put at the heart of the criminal justice process.

It is not enough just to proceed with these cases. We need to bring about changes so women do not find the court processes as humiliating and violating as the original rape. Gacaca is a brave and pioneering attempt to ensure justice for the hundreds of thousands who suffered so monstrously. No society has attempted such a remarkable exercise. There are currently some 80,000 people in jails designed to accommodate 45,000. The gacaca system is now in its stride and adding about 1000 a month to that population. An incredible 750,000 cases will be examined by the gacaca courts.

But there must be care as well both to deliver high standards of justice and to ensure the process does not significantly increase the trauma of those who have already suffered so much. as survivors are called upon to testify against perpetrators and recount the final moments of loved ones in courtroom trials. Many perpetrators (only an estimated half 10% of whom are in prison) have returned to the communities where the crimes were committed, further increasing levels of anxiety. The scars of the genocide remain raw, and survivors battle daily with grief, pain and suffering.

There is need for government to strengthen the health sector and to train the judicial system to deal with victims in a sensitive manner. As I mentioned, in the UK we have become aware of the need to create specialist courts and make special arrangements to hear cases on gender based violence which have helped to build up women’s trust and confidence in the judicial system. Furthermore, training judicial staff, the police and relevant organisations to recognize abuse, and measures available to respond to prevent it, gives victims confidence to report sexual violence.

I know the Rwandan government is acutely aware of these problems and is working hard to tackle them. It is important that the international community gives them the help and support needed. It is vital as well that the prevention of violence against women ranks high on national public health, social and legal agendas of the government, NGOs and donor countries.

Here in Rwanda, as is much of the world, we are seeing the power of women to change countries and societies for the better. By giving them the protection needed, by enabling them more easily to find the justice they deserve, this impact for good will only be enhanced and our societies become stronger and healthier for everyone.