Our justice system is failing women

2017-10-22 06:07
Matokgo Makutoane

Matokgo Makutoane

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'Daytime, night time... I just don't feel safe anymore' - UJ student

2017-06-15 14:11

The Department of Public Safety launched the ‘Women Safety’ campaign, in partnership with the University of Johannesburg on Wednesday, to teach women students self defence. Watch. WATCH

The recent news that a judge reduced a man’s jail sentence from life to 20 years on the grounds that he “forced his stepdaughter to have oral sex with him” raises serious concerns about the judiciary’s understanding of the impact of gender-based violence and its commitment to being part of the solution.

What message is sent when two North Gauteng High Court judges reduce the life sentence of a man who forced his six-year-old stepdaughter to re-enact porn scenes, because “the sex did not constitute a severe rape case” or result in any physical injuries or pain?

Does it imply that oral rape is less heinous?

At the Soul City Institute for Social Justice, we have heard numerous stories of young women who have lost faith in the justice system because the attitude of the police – from the point of registering a charge, to the investigation, to the decision on whether the case is taken to court.

This reflects a widespread view that gender-based violence does not fall under the ambit of “real” crime.

Last year, a woman asked participants at a Soul City discussion why it was that we had to march for police to take action in a rape case, when we did not have to do so for burglary.

Women spoke of being mocked at police stations, of being blamed for being instigators of their own assaults, or falling prey to the erroneous idea – even by family members – that their abuse was preventable.

While Police Minister Fikile Mbalula has vowed to overhaul the system, the reality is that we have heard these promises before.

Even the National Development Plan recognises the critical need for women to feel safe if we are to grow every facet of our country, including the economy.

Mbalula has acknowledged that millions have complained that the police are not responsive. He has undertaken to ensure that police stations become functional and to respond to and support victims of abuse.

Much needs to be done: Research data shows that a guilty verdict is reached in less than one in 10 rape cases.

Almost half of all rape cases, 47.7%, are not prosecuted by the courts, according to the SA Medical Research Council.

As a result, there is widespread under-reporting of women abuse due to a lack of faith in the system and fear of secondary victimisation and victim blaming.

The complex nature of gender-based violence

Our research at Soul City underlines the complex nature of gender-based violence and how it is fuelled by South African perceptions of masculinity.

We looked at the state response in terms of the laws, policies, programmes and services that state institutions provide and at how they were prioritised.

The institute noted that the absence of laws and policies negatively impacted victims, particularly in seeking state help.

This is exacerbated by delays and/or neglect in enforcing and implementing existing laws and policies and the inadequate resourcing of programmes and services by the state.

The reasons for this are manifold.

We found multiple instances where mandates have been duplicated and where there is confusion regarding roles. For example, the department of women in the presidency’s mandate on gender-based violence remains unclear.

Its function appears to overlap with the Commission for Gender Equality, particularly in providing oversight and monitoring the implementation of policies and programmes to promote gender equality.

We found there are insufficient human and financial resources to implement the laws.

This is particularly so in terms of the Domestic Violence Act, which was not costed when it was enacted, thus limiting its effective implementation.

For example, many of those responsible for the act have not received the requisite training and have a limited understanding of their obligations.

Add to this mix an alarmingly weak criminal justice system as reflected in the attrition of cases, resulting in fewer convictions.

Conviction rates remain just under 8%. In any other criminal sphere there would be a public outcry, but the reality is that concern about gender-based violence is matched only by a lack of awareness about the relevant laws.

If we want to challenge our current crisis on gender-based violence, it is important for ordinary men and women, boys and girls to know, understand and exercise their rights.

These challenges are systemic and it will take partnerships to ensure that they are tackled effectively.

This requires participation from civil society organisations.

The reality is that these organisations experience difficulties in networking and advocating issues in concert, because of funding shortages.

All of these issues point to systemic failures which need to be addressed if we want to restore faith in the justice system and ensure that we serve women.

It needs the full support of the interministerial committee on justice.

In the fight against gender-based violence, we must ensure that the relevant roles and responsibilities are not only allocated, but that the role players are held accountable.

If the police minister is serious about leading the challenge against gender-based violence, he must not treat this matter as a public relations game.

It is not a sport: there are only losers when we treat gender-based violence as a game.

Makutoane is advocacy manager at Soul City Institute of Social Justice. Follow her on Twitter @ndumakutoane

Read more on:    ndp  |  fikile mbalula  |  rape  |  violence

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