How to legally protect yourself against domestic abuse

Women's month each year reminds us of the work that we as a nation have done to eradicate oppression of women. Yet, it also prods us to remember how far we have to go before unfair discrimination against women is put to a complete end.

All too many South African women suffer from violence and abuse at the hands of their husbands, partners or other family members.

If you are one of them, you probably feel alone and helpless, unsure of where to look for help. It is important to note that the law is on your side and that there are a number of steps you can take to protect yourself against an abusive adult, child, a spouse, a partner or anyone else in your household who harms you in any way.

With the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998, government created obligations on police and courts to protect women and children as far as is possible from abuse.

This law recognises that abuse is not just physical violence, but can also take the form of sexual, verbal, emotional and psychological abuse.

It may also take the form of stalking, intimidation, harassment, damage of your property, and other forms of behaviour which may harm your safety or wellbeing.

With this Act in place, you should look to the law for help if your partner is a danger to your health and safety.

Open a criminal case

One of the first steps you can take is to open a criminal case against an abuser if you have suffered abuse such as assault or rape.

The police should arrest the abuser and he should be put on trial to answer for his crimes. If you take this step, you should look for shelter with a friend or family member until the case comes to trial.

Apply for protection

Another step you can take is to apply for a protection order from the court. This process will see the abuser summoned to the court, where a magistrate will interview him and explain why you need to be protected. The protection order will tell the abuser to stop his abuse immediately.

Report the abuse

If the abuse continues, you should report it to your nearest police station, where the officers on duty will open a case of contempt of court. The abuser will be arrested and may be sentenced to up to five years in jail for his crime.

Seek advice

Domestic violence is a complex issue, and it is not just a matter for the courts. You can talk to organisations such as Legal & Tax for legal advice, but also seek the help of an organisation such as Lifeline or People Opposing Women Abuse for dealing with the psychological and emotional implications of abuse.

Before you take action, speak to lawyers, counsellors, and sympathetic family members to ensure that you take action in a way that does not leave you open to more abuse from an angered partner or husband.

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