Editor’s note: The following is a commentary piece written by Zack Lindsey, a second-year law student at the University of Georgia who participated in the global externship program this summer. Disclosure: The law school’s Dean Rusk Center for International Law, which runs the program, is a Global Atlanta advertiser.
Ten years ago, Ghana passed the Domestic Violence Act, the West African nation’s first law to explicitly criminalize domestic abuse. But still in 2015, of more than 15,000 domestic abuse cases filed and supported by police, only about 1 percent ended in convictions.
I learned about this issue while on an externship program through the University of Georgia Law School, where I am beginning my second year.
One of many UGA law students who fanned out around the developing world this summer, I was paired with a nonprofit in the capital city of Accra, where I was tasked with helping study the outcomes of the law a decade after its adoption.
It’s a key issue for Ghana, where spousal abuse affects 28 percent of the population, per a 2015 study by the Institute of Development Studies at the U.K.-based University of Sussex. That same study showed 23 percent of Ghanaian women and 14 percent of men justify or condone wife beating, and that 65 percent of women and 56 percent of men fully agreed that women were to blame for rape if they wore revealing clothes.
For decades in Ghana, this problem went without much public recognition or government help, but in 2007 the people fighting for tools to tackle domestic violence got a major win: the Domestic Violence Act of 2007.
The act explicitly labelled domestic abuse criminal and offered legal protection for domestic violence victims comparable to that of the laws in the United States. In doing so, the act sparked a national conversation about how to deal with the issue legally and morally.
Patricia Essel, program manager for access to justice at Women in Law and Development in Africa’s Ghana office, has been working to end domestic violence in her country for 19 years.
She said that the law has made a difference by eliminating the perception of impunity among the population. In the past, she said, many considered spousal abuse exempt from previous laws protecting individuals against assault and other violent crimes.
Since the act’s passage, Ghana’s government has reported an increase in reporting of domestic violence, and recently, small numbers of men have also begun using the act for protection.
But progress is slow. Even with a government declaring domestic violence illegal, many Ghanaian still do not or cannot fight the crime.
“The largest problem is ignorance,” Ms. Essel said. “People just don’t know what their rights are and how to exert them.”
According to the Institute of Development Studies survey in 2015, only 75 percent and 61 percent of urban and rural respondents knew about the law. In some remote areas, only about 10 percent were aware of its protections.
Even when victims are aware of the law, they must navigate a daunting maze of obstacles to gain protection from their abusers.
Besides ignorance, Ms. Essel said the largest stumbling blocks for access to justice in Ghana are accessibility to the court house, inadequate resources to arrest and detain abusers, funding for victim treatment and protection, an overburdened judicial system and the family bond and societal pressure to keep the issue out of the public eye.
For example, Ms. Essel explained that police officers often don’t have transportation to the home where the victim is being abused. The victim many times has to catch the one officer on duty and take him to the scene of the crime.
Even if the police arrest the perpetrator, the victim might have to walk miles each day to a court house so bogged down in cases that it can take years to adjudicate a dispute. And all this time, the person the victim is trying to have arrested is likely the one she relies on for food and shelter.
It is no surprise, then, that according to the government of Ghana, of the 15,749 domestic violence cases filed and validated by the police in Ghana in 2015, only 139 had convictions.
Many get lost in the system and for many, it’s not possible to wait out the time the swamped court system needs. 3,316 victims in 2015 abandoned their cases. Often victims cited financial reasons for doing so.
UGA sends its students to work in the developing world with good reason. What’s happening in Ghana mirrors a problem in another English common law system: Georgia. Our state’s legal system also fails to provide tools for every citizen to protect themselves against the threat of domestic violence.
In 2014, the recently retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson described access to justice as a key problem in Georgia. He pointed to six rural counties that had no lawyers at all and a report from the Supreme Court’s Committee on Civil Justice in 2008 which showed only 9 percent of low-income Georgians with a legal need could get help from a lawyer.
Furthermore, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 27 counties in Georgia have no access to domestic violence services and another 26 counties have very limited access. Together, that’s about one-third of Georgia’s 159 counties.
Jamie Perez, director of the domestic violence and guardian ad litem programs at the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyer Foundation, said many of those counties without domestic violence services, there isn’t a professional available to walk victims through the process of obtaining a protective order.
Without someone to help victims understand the law and the court system, she said many victims abandon their cases simply because they don’t know what their legal rights are or how to enforce them. Moreover, most in need of shelter or financial aid, while they try to enforce these rights, must rely on private organizations and non-profits, which according to Perez are extremely scarce. Victims trying to escape their abusers, Perez explained, may not be able to find adequate shelter, especially if they have multiple children with them.
These impediments mean that many domestic violence victims in Georgia don’t have a realistic pathway outside of their abusive relationships.
As Ms. Essel put it back in Ghana: “Passing the law is good, but implementing it [is the problem]. We can’t just pass the law and let it lie down.”