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Police response to sexual assault: Is it really adequate?

Avatar: Zemen Mekonnen
Zemen MekonnenDecember 15, 2020
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Police response to sexual assault: Is it really adequate?

"They asked me why I was in the living room when I told them my employer raped me"  explains Genet Tefera, a domestic worker in Addis Ababa who brought her claim to the attention of police officers. "I'm a  maid, what kind of question is that?" She adds. Genet is one of the many victims who suffered from the unethical manner of police officers in handling claims and cases of rape and sexual assault and thus have lost hope in ever getting Justice served. "My rapist walks free while I had to suffer the scrutiny of police officers who made it seem like it was my fault that I got raped.

Legal action against a crime starts with a report. When a victim of a sexual assault comes forward with a case, police officers accept the claim and move forward with the case. The reporting of an individual's claim is recorded and documented along with several pieces of evidence gathered in the investigation process. This is the core stage of a litigation process and has a direct or indirect impact on the fate of the case. Police officers play a significant role in this stage and they must have the right degree of preparation and knowledge to fulfil their duty. Especially when it comes to a sexual assault case. 

Sexual violence/assault is defined as any sexual act, attempt to obtain a sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic, or otherwise directed, against a person’s sexuality using coercion, by any person regardless of their relationship to the victim, in any setting, including but not limited to home and work. Although a national sexual violence database is non-existent in Ethiopia, Health and Demographic survey conducted by the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia in 2016 suggested that nearly a third of women aged between 15 and 49 had experienced either physical or sexual violence.

Addis Zeybe interviewed Commander Atsede Hordoffa, Commissioner at Addis Ababa Police Commission on the matter.  She says "many gaps are observed on the side of police officers. The problem starts from improperly recording the statement of the victims in the first place." She noted how according to an evaluation done in the Lideta High Court Investigation office, when claims are brought to the attention of officers, they are often reluctant in accepting and serving individuals with due diligence. Lack of competence is observed and at times individuals seeking assistance are mistreated or treated unequally and even threatened.

Atsede further states "officers are supposed to write a claim word by word as stated by the individuals but they sometimes only hear the claim without writing them down."  She adds, "When they do write them down afterwards as opposed to jotting down exact words they often skip certain facts and not include the full content of the claim or add on facts themselves." This has an adverse outcome since the victim's voice is not given attention in a suitable manner.  

According to the 2016 UN women's Global Database on Violence against Women in Ethiopia, Lifetime Physical and/or Sexual Intimate Partner Violence is 28%, Physical and/or Sexual Intimate Partner Violence is 20%.

Sexual violence takes many forms, with sexual assault of women and girls being the most common. About 20–30% of women have experienced it at some stage in their lives, with intimate partners the most common group of perpetrators. The reality in Ethiopia is different as most of the time crimes of sexual assault committed by an intimate partner are given less concern if not disregarded. Commander Atsede mentions how in Ethiopia, intimate partner sexual assault is not considered as a violation. She states "police officers don't assume it's a crime when the perpetrator has some sort of relationship with the victim especially if it's a romantic relationship." 

Considering rape as the only form of sexual assault is the other recurring problem identified by Atsede. She states "sexual violence includes a wide range of assaults but that is often not the understanding among the police officers. They only assume rape as a crime that deserves legal action." In the investigation process, the problems noted start first with dubious admission of claims that fail to convey particular attention to the possible crime committed and it's specific nature.  Atsede states "without properly admitting the claim they go ahead with the investigation process and continue breaching several ethical and professional duties."

Sexual violence has a profound impact on physical and mental health that have both short term and long term effects. To create a safe and comfortable environment for victims of sexual assault to be facilitated in reporting the violence, police officers who are important actors in the legal action processes must be equipped with the right set of skills and knowledge. 

Creating an adequate level of awareness about what sexual violence is and knowledge on how to handle reports and cases of a sexual assault is exceptionally necessary. Atsed shares this point, she adds "educating police officers is key. There have been attempts to train officers working on sexual violence but it's never consistent." Uniform training arrangements that inform the police about mechanisms of handling sexual violence cases can produce fruitful results and increase the preparedness of the police when a victim comes to report a violation. 

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A PIECE BYZemen Mekonnen

Zemen Mekonnen is a Content Creater at Addis Zeybe. She is a graduate from Addis Abeba University School of Law and Governance.