Silencing the voiceless: How informal settling of sexual abuse cases affects victims

What you need to know:

  • For fear of community shame and embarrassment, settling cases of sexual abuse informally is often seen as the safest option by some. However, it is usually at the expense of the victim who is denied justice, vindication and help to cope with the trauma they have endured and leaves the perpetrator to go about their life unpunished

In recent years, the issue of settling criminal cases, especially those involving rape of women and children and other forms of sexual abuse, outside of the court system has become a topic of heated debate in many communities in the country.

The practice of allowing the family of perpetrators and the families of the victims to meet and settle an offensive issue privately has been deeply ingrained in certain cultures, with self-declared therapists and counsellors often playing a pivotal role in convincing the parties involved to forgo legal intervention.

Ms Amina Said*, one of the many self-ordained therapists in one of the streets of Dar es Salaam says she believes that when it comes to criminal cases, especially those involving sexual abuse, it is important to consider the potential re-traumatisation and distress that may come from engaging in a lengthy and emotionally taxing legal processes.

“I believe it is crucial for individuals who have experienced sexual abuse to focus on their own healing and recovery first and foremost. Engaging in a criminal case can be incredibly exhausting and can often lead to a prolonged period of distress and anxiety. Also, the legal process can be unpredictable and often ends with little resolution or justice for the survivor,” she notes.

She went on to say: “By focusing on their own healing journey, survivors can reclaim their power and find meaningful ways to move forward with their lives.”

Similarly, Ms Esther Macha, a resident of Dar es Salaam believes that the legal process can be a harrowing experience for victims instead of playing its role as a saviour.

"Many women are afraid to report rape and sexual abuse because of the stigma and shame associated with it. Going through the court process only adds to their trauma and that can discourage them from seeking justice," she shares.

However, contrary to Ms Esther, another local resident, Mr Alfred Justin believes undergoing legal process is better option in settling criminal cases.

"We need the legal system to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions and to help prevent further violence. Allowing these cases to be handled outside of court could lead to a lack of accountability," he notes.

On the other hand, Mr Abilay Pazzi, chairman of Tupendane Street, Manzese ward in Dar es Salaam, expresses his concern about this harmful practice. "As a government representative, I stand with the laws in place at all times. We cannot let criminals go unpunished and we cannot continue to allow the victims to suffer in silence. This practice undermines the legal process and only serves to perpetuate a culture of fear and silence among victims," he explains.

Furthermore, Mr Pazzi emphasises the need for the community to break the silence and stand up against such negative practices.

“It is crucial for community leaders, law enforcement agencies, and the broader society to unite in condemning this practice and instead, advocate for the victims' rights to seek justice and rehabilitation through the established legal channels,” he explains.

He reveals that self-declared therapists and counsellors have been playing a pivotal role in advocating for the private settlement of criminal cases.

“Their influence and the trust they have garnered in their communities can be exploited to perpetuate this harmful practice, often at the expense of the victims' rights,” he says.

He continues: “These individuals often wield significant influence and can manipulate the affected parties into believing that their issues should be resolved within the limits of their community, instead of seeking legal recourse.”

He suggested that it is very important to engage religious and community leaders, as well as the self-declared therapists and counsellors in a dialogue about the importance of upholding the rule of law in cases of terrible crimes such as rape.

“Providing them with training and education on victim rights and the legal process can help redirect their influence towards supporting victims' pursuit of legal justice,” he says.

While the intention behind such practices may be to avoid the often lengthy and emotionally challenging court process, the implications of handling criminal cases in this manner are far-reaching and can have a harmful impact on both the victims and society as a whole.

On his part, Mr Steven Kaswahili, an advocate from KZR law chambers in Mwanza reveals that one of the most troubling aspects of the settling of criminal cases in Tanzania is the impact it has on the victims and their families.

“In many instances, victims are pressured by their own families to accept a settlement, as taking the case to court is seen as bringing shame upon the family,” he shares.

“These places a huge burden on the victim, who is often left feeling powerless and without the support they need to seek justice for the harm they have suffered. It allows for the perpetuation of unequal power dynamics and can deepen existing social inequalities,” he adds.

Furthermore, he says that the financial compensation offered in these settlements in most of cases is often far from adequate in addressing the physical, emotional, and psychological trauma experienced by the victim.

"We cannot compromise on the rule of law. Alternative methods can lack transparency and may not always result in justice being served," he reveals.

Mr Kaswahili went on to explain that in addition to the immediate impact on individual victims, the practice of settling criminal cases has wider implications for the prevalence of sexual violence in Tanzania.

“By allowing perpetrators to avoid prosecution and punishment, this practice sends a dangerous message that such crimes can be committed with impunity,” he says.

“It also contributes to a culture of silence and shame surrounding sexual violence, making it even more difficult for victims to come forward and seek compensation for the harm they have suffered,” he reveals.

On top of that, an assistant lecturer of law at the Saint Augustine University of Tanzania (SAUT), Dr Neema Mwita notes that the settling of criminal cases undermines the rule of law and the authority of the formal justice system in Tanzania.

“Instead of holding perpetrators accountable through a fair and transparent legal process, this practice allows them to dodge the law and escape punishment. This destroys trust in the judiciary and perpetuates a cycle of injustice that ultimately harms the entire society,” she says.

She suggests that to put an end on the issue in our society there is a need for greater awareness and education regarding the rights of victims of sexual violence, as well as the importance of holding perpetrators accountable through the legal system.

“This includes challenging the cultural and traditional norms that prioritise the reputation of the family over the well-being of the victim,” she describes.

She added that there is a need for greater investment in the formal justice system in Tanzania, including improved access to legal aid and support services for victims of sexual violence.

Also, she says there is a need for stronger legislation and enforcement mechanisms to prevent the informal settling of criminal cases, particularly those involving sexual offenses.

“This requires measures to hold accountable those who seek to pressure victims and their families into accepting settlements.

She adds: “It is essential to prioritise the rights and well-being of victims of sexual violence, and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions through the formal justice system. Only by addressing this issue can Tanzania truly ensure justice and protection for all of its citizens.”

In a psychological point of view, a Counselling Psychologist and administrator at Bloom Consultancy and Human Development, Ms Hellena Mrema says that when cases are settled in the community, victims may feel unsupported, invalidated, and left without a sense of justice and closure.

“This can further traumatise the individual and contribute to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness,” she reveals.

She says settling cases in the community may send the message that sexual abuse is not taken seriously and that perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions.

“This can perpetuate a culture of silence and enable further abuse to occur,” she says.

She says from a psychological standpoint, victims of sexual abuse may experience a range of negative emotions, including shame, guilt, anger, fear, and anxiety. They may also struggle with mistrust, feelings of betrayal, and a diminished sense of self-worth.

“Without the opportunity for their voices to be heard and for the perpetrator to be held accountable through the legal system, victims may struggle to heal and move forward from their traumatic experiences,” she explains.

Ms Hellena advises that it is crucial for sexual abuse victims to feel empowered and supported in seeking justice and healing.

“It is important for communities to prioritise the well-being and safety of survivors and to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their actions,” she says.