Guest blog: Why lawyers need to gain a better understanding of gender-based violence

3 August 2017

Neelam Sakaria

Gender-based violence has become an umbrella term for any harm that is perpetrated against a person's will, and that results from power inequalities that are based on gender roles. Around the world, gender-based violence almost always has a greater negative impact on women and girls and this is a feature of offending here in the UK. 

In 1993, the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women offered the first official definition of the term "Gender-based Violence": "Any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."  

For this reason the term "Gender-based Violence" is often used interchangeably with the term "Violence against Women" (VAW). GBV principally affects those across all cultures. GBV can occur throughout a woman's lifecycle, and can include everything from early childhood marriage and genital mutilation, to sexual abuse, domestic violence, legal discrimination and exploitation. 

The recent killing of Celine Dookhran in London on 19 July 2017 recently reminded me that the horrors of honour-based crime are still prevalent in England motivated by the need to protect the 'honour' of families and communities. It is surprising that in 2017 we are still talking about the need to eliminate and prevent forced marriage, fgm and 'honour killings'; crimes motivated by the need to control sexuality, autonomy and independent thinking.

We also see almost daily reporting in the press regarding the impact of fgm on communities here in the UK and internationally yet we have not had one successful prosecution before the courts. The criminalisation of forced marriage has not resulted in a raft of prosecutions under the new legislation introduced in June 2014. We have to remind ourselves that the unique features of these areas of offending require an understanding of the communities and the drivers of the offending. 

The need to educate legal professionals to develop their confidence and understanding is key to achieving successful outcomes for survivors and victims. This is why I am working on behalf of the Bar Council of England and Wales in an exciting European wide project to train lawyers on violence against women, particularly how women can be supported in cases of gender violence. Each participating country has selected an area of VAW. The England and Wales seminar is due to take place on Saturday 23 September 2017 and will focus on forced marriage, honour-based abuse and FGM.

We will have the privilege of hearing from Hoda Ali, a survivor and lead campaigner against FGM in the UK, and Gerry Campbell, the former  deputy national policing lead for FGM, forced marriage and honour-based abuse on the victim specific issues associated with this form of offending and the challenges for law enforcement. Felicity Gerry QC, a reknowned international legal commentator will remind us the special arrangements that can be put into place to assist with case presentation in court. Expert speakers from Greece and Northern Ireland will also attend to speak together with UK experts on European practice and human rights. 

Neelam Sarkaria, barrister and Vice President of the Association of Women Barristers