Political will on rape lacking, NGOs say

2013-04-16 18:41

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Cape Town - The justice department's five-year strategic plan does not reflect adequate will and planning to tackle sexual violence, gender activists told MPs on Tuesday.

"If sexual offences are a priority at a very high political level, you will see changes happen.

"This is where priorities are given teeth," independent researcher Lisa Vetten said.

She was briefing Parliament's portfolio committee on justice in hearings on the department's plan and budget.

Vetten, representing the Shukumisa Campaign against sexual violence, said it was encouraging that the state was re-establishing sexual offences courts.

However, the framework policy would not necessarily translate into results, she said.

It lacked data on funding and logistics for these courts, along with reliable, regional statistics on conviction rates and plans on clearing backlogs in sex crime cases.

"The costs and budgets relating to improving prosecution of sexual offences are completely invisible in the budgets of the department of justice and NPA [National Prosecuting Authority]," she said.

Ideally, budgeting should reflect the severity of the incidence of rape and other sexual offences.

The plan stated that 42 specialised courts were scheduled to be established by the end of the past financial year.

Vetten said the plan was silent on future actions.

It was only via a television interview with Deputy Justice Minister Andries Nel that it emerged that the department planned to establish 90 such courts by 2018.

Samantha Waterhouse, of the community law centre at the University of the Western Cape, said an independent monitoring project found there were 15 courts countrywide at present claiming to have this status.

Only five of them had specialised prosecutors and magistrates.

Grossly inadequate

She said the fact that the strategic plan provided no disaggregation of budgets for prosecuting special offences also made it hard for civil society and the legislature to hold the department to account.

In addition, the department had provided for only two staff members to work on sexual offences matters within its Vulnerable Groups Directorate.

The number was "grossly inadequate" and would not yield a drastic improvement no matter how committed those employees were, she said.

This, along with a lack of a tailor-made strategy based on tracking sexual violence trends, again pointed to a lack of political commitment to address the problem head-on, she said.

"We don't know the big picture. It is very ugly politically... but if it is not looked at, it will not be fixed."

NGOs had noted that the incidence of fire-arm use in rape cases along the main gun-smuggling route between South Africa and Mozambique rivalled that of fire-arm use in all crimes in Gauteng, showing that the state had to look at how other crimes exacerbated sexual crimes and focus on these too, she said.

Following the disapproval voiced by MPs over magistrates' objections that working in sexual offences courts was too traumatising, Vetten and Waterhouse said it was vital that the magistrates assigned to these courts had the right profiles for the job.

ANC MP John Jeffery said the attitude shown by magistrates in this regard might yet bedevil the department's best intentions.

"My worry is that while the government wants to re-establish and establish more sexual offences courts, I don't know if we are going to win with the magistrates."

Vetten dismissed the magistrates' objection that serving in sexual offences courts was career-limiting because they did not get enough exposure to other cases.

"They do not say the same about serving in specialised commercial crimes courts."

She proposed that the department consider rotating magistrates filling those position, or establishing a sexual offences circuit court to travel through rural areas to hear rape cases.

Read more on:    john jeffery  |  andries nel  |  parliament 2013

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