Women and children have mostly been the most vulnerable when any form of trouble befalls a group of people. In the remnants of the catastrophe lie the cries of mother and child with extreme suffering.
The scenario above is just one form of vulnerability which may arise as a result of the lack of economic or social empowerment of the most vulnerable people in our communities. In most African Countries such as Ghana, women and children have continuously suffered many forms of abuses which have been attributed to the lack of power and protection.
Where Women and Children are protected and assisted to attain some social and economic status, abuses have been known to decline.
In ensuring that the vulnerable especially women and children obtain speedy and effective justice, Court-Connected (Court Annexed) ADR may be considered as an explorable opportunity and alternative for reaching a mutually acceptable resolution in some cases of abuse or potential abuse.
In Ghana, Women and Children suffer various forms of abuses mostly from their more powerful male counterparts and rarely from other females.
Prevalent abuses as a result of economic vulnerability may take the form of violence in assault especially in domestic and work environments. Starvation and flogging (caning in schools) as punishment are some other examples.
Prevalent abuses as a result of power imbalance may include Rape, Incest and human trafficking for purposes of labour or prostitution.
Abuses prevalent as a result of cultural practices include Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Trokosi systems of slavery which affects mostly women and children. Let me take a bit of time in explaining some of these culturally abusive practices. Female Genital Mutilation is mostly practiced in some parts of Africa. In some parts of the Northern Regions of Ghana, all females are expected to have parts of their genitalia i.e. the clitoris, Labia Minora and Hymen, removed. Unsterilized sharp instruments such as knives, blade etc are used for the exercise. The female child is normally held down and the exercise performed amidst screams and excruciating pain.
Another is the Trokosi system of slavery in which indigenes of a village or township who serve a deity (gods) of a shrine are required to present a young virgin from a family to serve the deity or gods in atonement for one sin or the other against the deity or gods. These ‘donated’ females live and serve the priests in the shrine, cooking, cleaning and caring for them. Most often, these girls get raped continuously at night and have many children who also become slaves of the deity. These girls live in this slave situation for the rest of their lives.
Of course, these practises have been banned in many countries including Ghana, but is believed to be still in practise in some remote areas.
A contentious example of cultural abuse referred to as marital rape may also be considered as a cultural abuse since traditionally, women (and children in some traditional areas) in Ghana are expected to necessarily succumb to sex as a marital duty. So they are forced by their husbands to have sex, resulting in beatings and eventual rape where the woman refuses to oblige.
Obviously, women and children as well as other groups of persons at risk of the above mentioned abuses need the necessary protection to live decent rights-based lives in their communities.
In Ghana, specific laws have been passed to protect these vulnerable groups. And a strong legal regime exists in the statute books of the Republic of Ghana to ensure the protection of identified vulnerable groups in society. Prominent among various legislation include:
- The Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560)
- The Juvenile Justice Act, 2003 (Act 653)
- The Labour Act, 2003 (Act 651)
- The Criminal Code, 1960 (Act 29), and its amendments, 1994 (Act 484) and 1998 (act 554)
- The Interstate Succession Law, 1985 (PNDCL 111) and amendment (PNDCL 264)
- Domestic Violence Act, 2007 (Act 732), etc.
Access to Justice
With the availability of such astute Laws in Ghana, one would assume that vulnerable groups must surely be well protected. However, as disappointed as it may be, many women and children continue to suffer abuses. Advocates of women and children’s rights have and continue to trumpet the enforcement of the above mentioned laws that protect the vulnerable. However, identifiable barriers also continue to prevent vulnerable persons from accessing justice effectively. These barriers include:
1. Under-Resourced public protection institutions such as the Social Welfare and the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice
2. High hospital bills during the examination of victims
3. High filing fees in the Courts
4. Delays in the hearing and enforcement of cases in the courts
5. Lack of institutional presence in some remote areas of the country, and
6. The absence of child panels in the districts as established by the Children’s Act, 1998 (Act 560) In essence, there are some other barriers such as the difficulty in affording representation, legal fees as well as the limited probability in accessing justice as a result of physical and economic limitations.
Access to Justice through the Judiciary
The Judicial Service of Ghana continues to work tirelessly to make justice more accessible to the vulnerable including women, children and the disabled. The Judicial Service aims at improving access to justice, to protect the interest of the vulnerable in society as well as ensure the efficiency and speedy delivery of justice in Ghana.
This includes making justice physically accessible to the vulnerable by opening more courts in the communities, especially remote areas. Another effort is aimed at making justice accessible through institutional reforms and ICT that produce effective and speedy justice to the communities. Also, Courts fees continue to be reviewed to make justice more economically affordable in society.
Access to Justice through Court-Connected Alternative Disputes Resolution (ADR) As part of the Institutional reforms by the Judicial Service of Ghana, efforts continue to be made especially over the past five years to mainstream ADR as part of the Justice Delivery System of the Judicial Service. ADR is defined as the various means of resolving disputes other than the Courts trial process, with the help of a neutral third person, who is voluntarily chosen by the parties in dispute.
It is proven as speedier, more effective, cheaper and fosters better outcomes and relationships than Court Litigation. In adopting Court-Connected ADR as part of the Justice Delivery System in Ghana, economic access to justice by the vulnerable in society has been enhanced. Also enhanced is the satisfaction of parties in accessing justice more speedily and effectively which is mostly evident in their repaired and improved relationships after settling their case through ADR.
Many women and children have assessed justice through Court-connected ADR in District Courts across the country and have confirmed that the process is indeed helpful. Families have been reunited, marriages have been repaired, children have been saved and their future secured and Land Lords and their vulnerable tenants have patched up beautifully in unity, resolving to live together in peace. These examples have all been made possible by the introduction of Court-Connected Mediation in the District courts in communities to assist the vulnerable especially to access justice more speedily and affordably.
ADR, especially Mediation is helpful in managing abuses that emanate from economic and social circumstances. Where parties in dispute have strong family or community ties, and are interdependent on each other in communal settings, ADR may be a more effective tool for making justice accessible and affordable to Women and Children.
Though Alternative Disputes Resolution by its very nature cannot necessarily cater for cases of abuse especially in highly criminal cases of extreme violence, aggravated assault or murder, it can still be considered as a worthy compliment and alternative to court trial processes, especially in gender related issues of accessing justice in civil and minor criminal matters in the Courts.
Other Civil Society Organizations such as ‘The ADR Project’ and The Ghana Association of Certified Mediators and Arbitrators (GHACMA) are expected to join in this all important quest to explore the benefits of ADR and assist in ensuring better outcomes through ADR Processes for all women, Children and other disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in our societies.