Locked Down with Abusers: COVID-19 and Access to Justice for Domestic Violence Victims in Ghana
*By Maame Efua Addadzi-Koom The anti-coronavirus lockdown and social distancing directives in most countries around the world have confined people to their homes for prolonged periods of time. In Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo, on Friday 27 March 2020 declared a two-week partial lockdown which was to take effect within 48 hours in specific areas within Greater Accra and Greater Kumasi while the earlier social distancing measures imposed remained in force in the rest of the country. In the midst of all these preventive measures, a lot continues to happen behind closed doors especially for domestic violence victims who are confined to their homes with their abusers. A 2016 national survey estimated that approximately 27.7 percent of Ghanaian women had experienced at least one form of domestic violence (economic, social, psychological, physical and sexual violence) within the 12 months prior to the survey. The 2016 survey also indicated that 23.1 percent of Ghanaian women found wife-beating acceptable. Only 9 percent of women first report domestic violence cases to the police. In 2008, a study conducted by the Demographic and Health Survey in Ghana also revealed that 38.7 percent of ever-married Ghanaian women between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence by a husband or partner at some point in their lives. With these statistics even in “normal” times, domestic violence cases will likely increase during the coronavirus lockdown in Ghana. Fewer cases are likely to be reported as well, considering that in most instances, the patriarchal setup of the Ghanaian society condones domestic violence, victims are less likely to perceive their circumstances as an emergency when in fact it is. Some instances of domestic violence present life or death choices for women and this trend is likely to increase during the coronavirus confinement. Consequently, it will be essential in these times to introduce a system of legal triage that will enable domestic violence victims to urgently report cases of abuse and access justice and the needed social support. Although the President in his address exempted the judiciary from the coronavirus restrictions in Ghana, lawyers, litigants, and other court users were not exempted. As a result, the Chief Justice in a press release dated 30 March 2020 indicated that registrars of the various courts in the locked-down areas adjourn all cases listed during the lockdown period to May and June 2020. The affected courts have been directed to deal with only critical cases such as breaches arising from the restriction orders and other criminal matters. The Supreme Court and Court of Appeal are also available to handle urgent cases as may be determined by the Chief Justice during this period. It is recommended that in order to curb the impending rise in domestic violence cases during the lockdown, the Judiciary should make arrangements with the Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service to secure a domestic violence helpline which will be publicized on the various media platforms to all Ghanaians. It is important that this helpline is a three-digit line in order to enhance faster reporting. Again, the helpline should be toll-free to remove any barriers that lack of airtime may impose on victims who may not have access to airtime, especially in these times. The helpline should also allow for victims to send text messages as some may be unable to call from their homes due to the presence of their abusers.[i] Victims who call or text this helpline should have the guarantee that they will receive the necessary intervention within 24 hours of reporting. This means that the Judiciary would have to work with the Ghana Police Service to effect immediate arrests and other necessary actions that need to be taken when reports are made. The police service should be highly alert in order to intervene promptly when domestic violence is reported. In some western countries such as France and Spain, a code system for reporting domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has been implemented to allow for domestic violence reporting. In France, victims can go to the pharmacy and call for help. The government of Ghana and relevant institutions will have to find context-specific remedies to address the issue in Ghana. Aside from creating awareness for the helpline, publicizing an emergency shortcode also sends an indirect message to domestic violence victims and perpetrators alike. To the victims, the announcements will serve as a message highlighting the urgency and gravity of their situation for which reason they need to report. While the perpetrators and potential perpetrators will be put on notice about the reporting system in place in hopes that at least some may be deterred from carrying out their acts of violence. Once cases are reported, the courts may issue interim protection orders which are provided for under Section 14 of the Domestic Violence Act, 2007. These orders may be issued for a period not exceeding three months. Domestic violence victims are most vulnerable during these unprecedented times, and while access to justice will be generally slowed down and judicial resources will be spread thin, we must be careful not to sacrifice the safety of those who risk being killed faster by staying home than by the coronavirus itself. [i] There is currently a DOVVSU helpline: +233 055 1000 900 in place for reporting however this hotline is not toll-free and it also comes across as too long for emergency calls. * Maame Efua Addadzi-Koom, LLB.,BL., LLM. || Ph.D. Candidate (University of Cape Town, South Africa), || Lecturer (Faculty of Law, KNUST, Ghana). **The views expressed in this article belong to the author.