Lack of justice adds to women's trauma

2018-08-19 09:36
Reeva Steenkamp

Reeva Steenkamp

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The South African struggle was not just a struggle against racial oppression and political exclusion. It was a struggle for equality, justice, human dignity, nonsexism and the creation of a society that recognises the inherent worth and dignity of all its people.

Our Constitution recognised this imperative and in its provisions there is a strong commitment to the creation of such a caring society.

As we celebrate the achievements of women who have made strides in society this month, the media is constantly reminding us of the plight of survivors of gender-based violence.

Against the background of staggering statistics and a rate of femicide said to be the highest in the world, it is no surprise that this kind of violence is taking centre stage in conversations around the country. Few will argue against the fact that there is a strong constitutional and legal framework that provides, inter alia, for the advancement of women.

Numerous laws have been passed in the past 24 years to ensure a synergy between what the Constitution demands and what the law provides, all in the interests of guaranteeing to women the freedom to enjoy human rights on a basis of equality with men. The Domestic Violence Act is one of these laws. Among its provisions is the right of every woman to be free from stereotypes and practices that are based on concepts of inferiority. But the real-life experiences of many women who survive gender-based violence are a far cry from the noble intentions in the Constitution.

A young woman opened a case at a local police station after suffering months of emotional and repeated physical abuse from her partner. Instead of getting the support and help she needed, the officers asked what would happen to her if she goes ahead with the case. Their advice was that this was a family dispute that could be resolved by talking things over. They prevailed on her not to go ahead with the case.

This is a constant refrain heard in police stations all over the country, an undeniable reality for those women who attempt to seek help. It boils down to our law enforcement officials upholding traditions and gender norms that leave little room for women to enjoy their most basic human rights. So violence against women continues unabated and takes on new and more vicious forms as alleged perpetrators are easily let off the hook.

It takes highly publicised cases for the justice system to follow due process that ends in a conviction. When the shocking story of the brutal murder and burning of Karabo Mokoena broke out we learnt that she had sought help from the police, but was sent home and told to work things out with her ex-lover. Other women who have attempted to resort to the justice system and whose stories have not been told fail to have the law on their side. Reporting the crime ends up being another traumatic experience. The untold psychological effects of this can only be imagined.

Indifference and non-action by police are traumatic and lack of access to justice at the level of the courts compounds the trauma. Gender-based violence is a human rights violation and the inability to access the justice system is equally a violation of human rights. There are courts in this country that are specifically designed to deal with sexual offences. But the court system itself is not immune to patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes about the place of women in society.

There are numerous stories of young women who are compromised by assumptions that influence the registering, processing, investigation and ultimately the decision whether to take a case to court. A simple analysis of sexual crime cases shows that most defendants rely on established myths and stereotypes of female behaviour, such as what she was wearing, or mocking and blaming for the abuse. It comes as no surprise that conviction rates are estimated at 6.8% or lower.

Amid the publicity following the murders of Mokoena, Anene Booysen, Valencia Farmer and Reeva Steenkamp in the past few years, the department of women has always responded by making a commitment that perpetrators will be accountable. Accountability for gender-based violence does not only lie with the individual perpetrator, but with all organs of state that share responsibility for ensuring that women and children live in safe environments where their dignity and rights are protected.

But how much accountability is there from government? In a recent TV interview, Minister Bathabile Dlamini responded to a question from a journalist by saying there needs to be a national strategy on gender-based violence.

What has been happening in the past 20 years since the passing of the Domestic Violence Act of 1998? What happened to the national council on gender-based violence that was established in 2012 and that disappeared through the cracks?

Alongside the council, the interministerial committee that was tasked with developing an integrated programme of action seems to have stalled. So we are left with laws and policies against gender-based violence that lack effective implementation.

No one could accuse the #TotalShutdown activists of overstating the case when they marched across the country last Wednesday. They rightly led the fight against gender-based violence. The combined voices of thousands of women sent out powerful messages. The systemic gendered nature of access to justice is one of them.

In a democratic South Africa, when women have come out to present their demands, government has an obligation to listen. Civil society on its part has to double efforts to ensure that every woman understands her human rights and is prepared to defend them, inter alia, her right to dignity, her right to be treated as an equal and her right to access justice.

Majodina is a consultant on human rights

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Read more on:    womens rights  |  violence  |  constitution

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