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Stepping up the fight against gender-based violence

The years 2017 and 2018 will probably be remembered as the most challenging for gender

relations in South Africa, with several stories of gender-based violence dominating the news during this period. The killing of women by their intimate partners is not a new phenomenon in South Africa. However, in recent years, it has reached unprecedented levels as more women are coming forward to report cases of femicide, says Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha.

“We have created more institutions that enable us to better respond to this challenge. This has created a conducive environment for more people to come forward with the hope that something will be done to address the problem,” explained the Minister.

According to Statistics South Africa, the killing of women increased by 117 percent between 2015 and 2017. The number of women who were victims of sexual offences also rose from 31 665 in 2015/16 to 70 813 in 2016/17, an increase of 53 percent. Some of the high-profile cases that dominated the news included those of Amanda Tweyi, Thembisile Yende, Zolile Khumalo, Karabo Mokoena and Sheila Mosidi Kopanye, who were all allegedly killed by their intimate partners.

These cases sparked a nation- wide condemnation and social media backlash with people coming up with hashtags such as #MenAreTrash.

This was followed by campaigns such as the #100MenMarch, #NotInMyName and #TheTotal- Shutdown – during which government and civil society groups raised their concerns over the escalating cases of gender-based violence.

Minister Masutha noted that there is no single answer to the question of why men abuse and kill women and pointed to some of the common elements that are usually present in abusive relationships.

“It usually doesn’t happen as a once-off incident. There is usually a build-up that ultimately leads to the worst-case scenario, which is usually femicide or rape or a combination of these. This is why we need to change all these gender- based relations at a social level,” he said.

Need for research

The Minister added that the criminal justice cluster has already identified the need to embark on research that may shed more light on the underlying drivers of abuse. The control of drug and alcohol use, which affect the sense of judgment and control of emotions, will be another critical intervention that the country will have to put on trial, he noted.

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha.

Alcohol abuse is often at the heart of contact crimes, which include murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, assault resulting in grievous bodily harm, common assault and robbery. Around 70 percent of domestic violence is estimated to be associated with alcohol.

Minister Masutha acknowledged that, until now, government has placed more emphasis on secondary prevention measures which address femicide and abuse after it has happened rather than on primary prevention measures. However, there have been various approaches that focus on the victims.

For example, the Department of Social Development rolled out Gender-Based Violence Command Centres from 2014. The international award-winning centres provide telephonic and counselling support to victims of gender-based violence.

Focus on rural communities

The South African Police Service’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units also focus on victim support, while the National Prosecuting Authority is running the Ndabezitha Project that seeks to train traditional lead-ers, prosecutors and court clerks on how to deal with cases of domestic violence in rural com- munities.

The Department of Justice has special Sexual Offences Courts, which were reintroduced in 2013 to provide specialised support ser- vices to victims of sexual offences and reduce turnaround times for the finalisation of sexual offence cases. The department has plans to increase the number of courts across the country.

The department has also put in place Thuthuzela Care Centres. These 55 “comfort one-stop centres”, situated across the country’s public hospitals provide victims with a holistic service that links to sexual offences courts. The centres are staffed by skilled prosecutors, doctors, social workers, magistrates, non-governmental organisations and police.

But these facilities are not without challenges and are sometimes unable to operate at their full potential. The lack of required infrastructure and staff shortages are some of the challenges that have resulted from budget austerity measures introduced across government.

“From where I am sitting – yes we can do much more to protect the women of South Africa from a preventative point of view. For example, we can do more in the regulation of places of entertain- ment that sell alcohol in terms of their location and operating hours,” noted the Minister.

Improved conviction rate

But the good news, he pointed out, is that the department has seen an improved conviction rate for sexual offences which currently stands at 72 percent. At Sexual Offences Courts, the department has registered a conviction rate of just over 74 percent for the 2016/17 reporting period. In the same period, the general courts finalised more than 6 600 sexual offence cases with 4 780 convictions.

During the first quarter of the 2018/19 financial year, 28 cases were finalised with 27 convictions obtained. According to Minister Masutha these statistics are an indication that the department is on the right track.

“To us, this indicates that there are efficiencies, especially when one considers the nature of these crimes and the complexity in achieving a successful prosecution,” he said.

However, many more cases would succeed if victims did not cancel protection orders and drop cases. Minister Masutha explained there are a number of factors that lead to the cancellation of protection orders. Some of these include economic dependency, where the perpetrator is also the sole breadwinner.

“Often you find perpetrators abuse this economic power position. In such cases what the court can do through a protection order is let victims stay in the house and remove the perpetrator from the house.

“If the perpetrator has a legal duty to the victim and the court can issue a maintenance order – especially when there are children involved – this will ensure that they continue to enjoy support without the perpetrator taking advantage and abusing them in the house.”

Review of the Criminal Procedure Act

The impending review of the Crimi- nal Procedure Act which, among other things, prescribes the period within which the state can pros- ecute persons for allegations of particular categories of crime, will also strengthen the fight against gender-based violence. Through the review, the department intends to abolish the prescribed period of 20 years to prosecute sexual offence cases, femicide and all forms of gender- based violence.

The review also intends to introduce harsher sentences for offences relating to domestic violence and femicide – a move that the Minister hopes will make the perpetrators think twice before committing these crimes.

But Minister Masutha pointed out that for South Africa to break the vicious cycle of gender-based violence, more needs to be done to change the mindsets of South African men.

He identified several areas that can be targeted for behavioural change interventions, such as the public transport environment, schools and institutions of higher learning and training, as well as workplaces.

This is where tendencies develop. We need to generally talk and have campaigns that will remind everybody that this is a societal challenge that confronts all of us.

“We need to remind our men that they have sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends, aunts and rela- tives that are women who might be victims. Once you talk to people in the manner that is closer to home, something is bound to ring a bell.”

Partnerships produce results

The ministry has embarked on an initiative which sees it part- nering with other government departments, non-governmental organisations and reformed of- fenders to forge dialogues with the aim of developing a prevention strategy.

“These people come from communities where such things happen and are prevalent. It is therefore important that we are able to capture them there,” the Minister said.

He maintained that government’s partnerships with civil society and advocacy groups need to be improved to reduce duplication and gaps.

“A more holistic and integrated action plan will also expand the demographical attention to cover non-urban centres, where the plight is usually under-reported. “Government has started this from its side with the ongoing integrated justice system review process, which is looking into the value chain of the justice system,” said the Minister.

He added that the review is a multi-department effort that not only focuses on prevention but also aims to increase successful investigations, prosecution, punishment and ultimately the rehabilitation of offenders and their restoration back into society.

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