“For the first time, I read a report that captured the voices of the children,” said Hon. Gertrude Chawatama as she addressed the students, scholars, and officials filling Cornell Law School’s MacDonald Moot Court Room.
Chawatama, Judge of the High Court of Zambia and Commissioner on the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission of Kenya, was referring to a report released by the Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice, Cornell’s International Human Rights Clinic, and Women and Law in Southern Africa-Zambia that addresses sexual violence against girls in Zambia.
Launched October 18 during the Avon Center’s Third Annual Women & Justice Conference, the report, "'They are Destroying Our Futures': Sexual Violence against Girls in Zambia's Schools," is the result of interviews with government officials, school teachers and administrators, and more than 100 children conducted by Law School faculty and human rights clinic students during two trips to Zambia.
Of the students interviewed, 54 percent reported that they had personally experienced sexual violence or harassment at the hands of teachers, students, or men while traveling to and from school. When asked about peers, 84 percent of students reported that they had either experienced or knew of classmates who had experienced such abuse.
Joining Judge Chawatama on the report release panel were Avon Global Center Executive Director Elizabeth Brundige, Cornell Law Professor Cynthia Grant Bowman, and Hon. Virginia M. Kendall, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois. A panel of government officials and other concerned parties convened simultaneously at the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia.
Rashida Manjoo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, served as keynote for the conference. Manjoo spoke of the legal, cultural, and socio-economic causes of sexual violence and the obstacles to redress. Drawing on visits to a wide range of countries, including Jordan, Italy, Somalia, Algeria, Zambia, and the U.S., she stressed that sensitivity to both tradition and the nitty, gritty details of implementation were essential for effective reforms. As she emphasized the importance of critical analysis in evaluating progress, Manjoo also mentioned more than once that the need represented a great research opportunity for the students sitting before her.
The conference also convened fifteen judges and magistrates from southern Africa and the U.S. to share stories of the challenges they face, as well as accounts of progress and innovation.
A judge from Malawi explained her country’s “come courts,” which empower the members of rural communities by bringing the judicial apparatus to them. A Zambian judge observed that recent constitutional reforms throughout the region are compelling officials to confront the question, “What is justice?” adding, “The period from now is going to be crucial.”
Reflecting on the event, Brundige, who was lead author of the Zambian report, said, “By bringing together judges and other stakeholders from southern Africa and the United States, the conference facilitated an important transnational dialogue about strategies for addressing the sexual abuse of girls. As participants shared ideas and best practices, their conversations illustrated the importance of working together across borders and sectors to combat this devastating form of gender-based violence that affects girls throughout the world.”