Investing in forensic medicine will help solve cases of gender based violence

By Dr. Myrna Kalsi

There exists a huge gap in proper infrastructure in the management of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), especially Sexual Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) — from reporting the cases to the process of follow-ups, documentation in medical notes, and the role of forensic medicine in ensuring access to justice. This lack of a chain of custody contributes to poor evidence mechanisms, resulting in the inability to track and monitor offences, commonly from repeat offenders.

Data from World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that an estimated 1 in 3 (30%) women worldwide have been subjected to either physical, intimate partner violence, or non-partner violence in their lifetime. 

Closer home, data from Nairobi Women’s Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Centre shows that 45 percent of women aged between 15 and 49 years have experienced either physical or sexual violence. One in five Kenyan women (21%) has experienced sexual violence. 

During a recent Gender Equality Forum held in Paris, President Uhuru Kenyatta pledged to invest an estimated Sh2.3bn by 2022 and a further Sh 5bn by 2026 in the fight against GBV. 

In light of the president’s commitment, I am confident that our collective approach must be to genuinely seek to identify and embrace true knowledge hosts and ecosystem builders of functional interfaces to pursue our collective goals for addressing GBV as part of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 16 which aims at promoting peace, justice, and strong institutions. 

The reality is that there are cases where victims’ access to justice is frustrated, with perpetrators walking scot-free or working their way out of courts of law. This leaves the survivors dejected, traumatized, and stigmatized, affecting their mental health. Some cases turn fatal – as suicides or homicides. 

Due to the complexity of follow-up of violence cases and the victims feeling drained, victims opt to stop pursuing justice in most circumstances. This is attributed to the lack of a coordinated governance system between forensic investigation and the healthcare ecosystem.

Poor data management of SGBV related cases leads to insufficient centralization of data. For instance, a lot of information is diluted or distorted, causing loss of evidence filed by different examiners, who may have diverse knowledge and know-how required at different care points — either at police, medical or legal units. This shows a gap in capacity building on various stakeholders in handling SGBV cases. 

Forensic investigation is the vehicle that transports a survivor, victim, or suspects from the crime scene to the courtroom. While forensic services are, by their nature, investigative, their ideal positioning for good governance rests in their capacity to be autonomous. Depending on one’s case, both in-depth technical and experiential knowledge is required to pursue the vital investigative work of a GBV case with a multi-stakeholder approach.

Forensic medical investigators, forensic police investigators, and forensic laboratory investigators constitute forensic stakeholders. A quality forensic investigation process generates, secures, analyses, produces, and interprets that evidence in the interest of justice and per standards of best practice in forensic science. A judicial process interested in a fair outcome will consider the aforementioned, interpreted for the courts by an expert witness(es) qualified to interpret their findings and have their interpretation vigorously tested against global forensic medical science/science standards. 

An enormous amount of investment has been directed to the specialist field of reproductive health perspective, flowing into addressing challenges relating to GBV. While this is noble and highly commendable, we must also appreciate the subsequent imbalance caused by hardly any investment for forensic healthcare delivery in the management of cases of GBV. 

The current collective lot of health programmatic interventions view the GBV survivor more through “Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” and less through the lens of “access to justice.” 

While forensic services are intertwined with different state and non-state actors, there is a need to fully integrate its services at the procedural level and policy level in enacting various laws such as the Sexual Offences Act 2006.

We need to simplify the governance of the current healthcare ecosystem for GBV. Knowledge and appropriate interventions will ensure the establishment of a proper forensic healthcare delivery system (the medical specialty of forensic medicine and related forensic fields) that can engage in medical investigation, strengthen the criminal justice system, and majorly contribute to good governance in tackling GBV. A forensic healthcare delivery system would go beyond the survivor to other vulnerable groups who need similar services. 

Collaboration with a forensic ecosystem from different areas of forensic science; Forensic Police, Forensic Medical, and Forensic Laboratory Science will lead to appropriate autonomous coordination and good governance in addressing human rights violations such as GBV through consistent, well-managed forensic science evidence in Kenya.

At the heart of this ecosystem is the qualified forensic practitioner. She/he can navigate the crime scene, host these cases’ ethical viewpoint, and aggravate quality strategic interventions with technical knowledge. 

It is time to recognize the qualified human resource of forensic practitioners as the core receptacle. As a result, forensics is the major cohesive factor in developing a coordinated and accountable governance structure for addressing GBV. 

The writer is a New Faces New Voices-Kenya Champion and a Forensic Specialist.

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