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Last edited: July 03, 2013

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  • Amending and passing new legislation and policies are not of themselves sufficient to address VAWG in any country. Whether working within formal or informal justice systems, gaps in the capacity to administer justice will have to be identified and addressed. Justice sector actors must become accountable to survivors and their communities and pursue perpetrators consistently and systematically. In order for this to happen, governments and their partners must have zero tolerance for corruption as well as technical expertise and equipment within key institutions (police, judiciary, forensic, medicine and public sector legal aid) and knowledge of and appreciation for the rights of survivors (Ndinga-Muvumba, 2012,).
  • Strengthening the institutional response of the justice sector and increasing the capacity of actors to ensure access to justice to survivors can reduce bias and mistreatment and improve the legal protections for women in danger. When implementing legal/justice reform related to VAWG, the following recommendations should serve as a guide:

1. Develop policies, procedures and protocols to improve the response of police, judges, forensic doctors, and other professionals.

  • Specialized procedures can guarantee security, privacy and confidentiality for victims before, during and after trials, for example with witness protection and resettlement packages. Survivors of VAWG should be provided with legal, medical and psychosocial support, as well as emergency safe shelters, when necessary (Bastick et al, 2007).

2. Invest in appropriate infrastructure:

  • Properly managed and staffed court houses, and mobile courts that bring justice to remote areas can enable the justice/legal sector to respond rapidly and investigate and prosecute cases of VAWG in areas where survivors might not otherwise have access to justice (UNWOMEN, 2011). For more information on mobile courts see Improve physical access to justice for women and girls in Justice Module.
  • Women’s police stations, cells, or specialized units on VAWG can encourage more victims to file complaints and improve responses to VAWG. 
  • Increasing access to modern forensic services provided by forensic nurses and doctors specially trained in VAWG helps build stronger cases and focuses on the victims.
  • Specialized courts that only handle cases of VAWG and special procedures for cases of VAWG can positively change the way cases are handled. (For more information see Specialized courts and procedures positively change the way cases are handled and how-to Develop or modify court infrastructure). 

3. Ensure training for all legal/justice sector personnel including on gender and issues related to VAWG:

  • Training for judges, prosecutors, and informal sector actors about dynamics of violence against women and how it differs from other crimes that are not based on gender. These trainings should include attention to issues of diversity and the additional risks faced by some women and girls based on their age, ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, race or religion.
  • Technical assistance, consultation, and training for justice sector actors on effective protection and resolution of VAWG cases.
  • Training for informal sector actors about laws and process in the formal sector and vice versa.
  • Introducing law students to informal justice systems.
  • Increasing technical, managerial, financial, and administrative skills of civil society groups that interact with formal and informal sector.
  • Training paralegals on how and when to bridge the formal and informal sectors. With proper training, paralegals – and women’s legal rights organizations – can “publicize domestic violence laws locally, disseminate information to help women access their rights, and providing advice and support to enable women to navigate legal processes” (DFID, 2012).
  • Developing infrastructure and record-keeping capacity.
  • Developing adequate capacity to provide the requisite follow-up supports. For more information see Staff Training and Capacity Building.

4. Improve coordination among all justice sector operators (state attorneys, public defenders, prosecutors, and police) and between multiple sectors

  • As outlined in the IASC GBV Guidelines, successful legal prosecution of VAWG relies heavily on the involvement and participation of survivors. As such, it is important to ensure that services for survivors are comprehensive and well-coordinated between multi-sectoral actors (for example health care, psychosocial support and legal advisors) to support any judicial process. Experience has shown that when appropriate, compassionate and respectful response services are in place, survivors are more likely to seek legal redress and follow through with necessary action. Conversely, without the proper support services in place, the majority of survivors will avoid pursuing legal action (adapted from IASC, 2005, pg. 36).


Example: Legal Aid Centres- Sudan.  In the Sudan, UNDP has worked with partners to provide 12 legal aid centres across Darfur, Kassala and the Three Areas (Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan). Raising awareness of GBV has been prioritized and each centre runs women-only legal advice sessions. Displaced women have been trained as paralegals, empowering them with new skills and providing legal advice to many others. A legal aid network, made up of 61 Darfurian lawyers, was established to take on cases referred by the legal aid centres. In 2007, they took on 550 new cases, achieving convictions for rape and murder, acquittals of women charged with zina (extramarital sex) and the release of people arbitrarily detained. A third of the cases were related to GBV (excerpted from UNWOMEN, 2011, pg. 92).


Example: Gender training for judges.  The International Association of Women Judges brings together more than 4,000 judges from 87 countries. In 1997, it launched a 3-year human rights training programme for judges and allied professionals in five South American countries on the application of international and regional human rights conventions to cases arising in domestic courts involving discrimination or violence against women. Since 2000, its Jurisprudence of Equality Programme (JEP) has expanded to Central America, East Africa and Southern Africa. In total, more than 1,300 judges, male and female, have taken part in JEP training in 12 countries.  JEP workshops and seminars bring judges together to focus on the concrete meaning of abstract guarantees of equal protection and nondiscrimination. Through case studies and problem-solving exercises, judges share insights with colleagues and deepen their understanding of international law as applied to domestic contexts. The JEP has:

  • Developed an international human rights judicial community. JEP-trained jurists now form the nucleus of regional networks that can support one another and encourage their colleagues to follow suit.
  • Changed points of view and practices. Many JEP-trained judges credit the programme with alerting them to the nature and scope of domestic violence and gender discrimination; to hidden biases – their own and those of others – and stereotypes that sustain these biases; and to more effective and sensitive ways to question witnesses.
  • Adapted their curriculum to non-judicial contexts. JEP participants have incorporated JEP materials in curricula they use for teaching students, at secondary and tertiary levels, as well as for training programmes for police, lawyers, social workers, physicians and other professionals.
  • Garnered support from courts, government agencies and the judiciary. In Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, for example, the Chief Justices publicly announced support for the JEP and adopted the programme as an official offering of their judicial training institutes


Source: excerpted from Valasek, 2008 pg. 20.


Example: ARC International’s GBV Legal Aid Clinics.

ARC International’s GBV Legal Aid Clinics (based in Guinea) work only with refugees and specifically refugee survivors of GBV from Liberia and Sierra Leone. The clinics prosecute cases of physical and sexual violence, domestic abuse, sexual exploitation, child prostitution and the pimping of children, forced prostitution, threats, paternity suits, and child custody/kidnapping. Throughout the legal aid process, survivors continue to have access to psychosocial support from ARC and other organizations in Guinea. In addition to conducting advocacy, the Clinics provide three primary services:

  • education on the legal rights of women and children,
  • confidential advice to women and children regarding their legal rights and options under the law, and
  • legal representation of women and children whose rights have been violated.

ARC’s programme in Guinea embarked on legal aid after the minimum GBV prevention and response services were in place and trust had been gained from the community. Given this approach—legal aid was instituted at the appropriate time and as a part of a comprehensive programme—the clinics were successful in aiding survivors to maintain their safety and to obtain justice.



An Overview of the Fern Holland Legal Aid Clinic in Guinea, West Africa.

Gender-Based Violence Legal Aid: A Participatory Toolkit


Additional Tools 

Gender-Based Violence Legal Aid: A Participatory Tool Kit (American Refugee Committee International, 2005). Gender-Based Violence in Conflict-Affected Settings. Minneapolis, MN. One of three documents in a series designed to assist communities and humanitarian workers assess the situation in their particular setting and to determine the needs and next steps to implementing comprehensive and multi-sectoral programs to address GBV.  The Tool Kit includes a “GBV Legal Aid Matrix” and participatory exercises to aid in the design of programs to address gender-based violence. Available in English.

Stop violence against women: How to use international criminal law to campaign for gender-sensitive law reform (Amnesty International, 2005). This tool was created for Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations, in particular women's groups, to campaign for national legal reform on the criminalization of violence against women that meets the highest standards of international practice. It aims to provide greater detail in the area of criminal law. Available in English.


Additional Resources

UNHCR. “Access to justice and sexual and gender-based violence:  UNHCR’s call for more concerted action”.

Sexual Violence Beyond Conflict Termination: Impunity for Past Violations as a Recipe for New Ones? (Lindgreen, M./ ACCORD Policy & Practice Brief, Issue 015, November 2011).  Available in English.

This is What We Demand, Justice! Impunity for Sexual Violence against Women in Colombia’s Armed Conflict (Amnesty International, 2011).  Available in English.

 Justice for Women: Seeking Accountability for Sexual Crimes in Post-Conflict Situations (FRIDE, 2008) Available in English.

Access to Justice for Victims of Sexual Violence (UNHCR, 2005). Available in English.