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RIGHTS-SOUTH AFRICA: Election Campaign Silent on Violence Against Women

Stephanie Nieuwoudt interviews LISA VETTEN, gender rights activist

CAPE TOWN, Mar 18 2009 (IPS) - With its emphasis on gender equality, the South African constitution is regarded as a great example for many other developing countries. Yet, despite laws intended to protect the rights of women like the Sexual Abuse Act and the Domestic Violence Act, women in the country still suffer indignities at the hands of police and in court.

Protesting gender-based violence in Cape Town. Credit:  Miriam Mannak/IPS

Protesting gender-based violence in Cape Town. Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

Lisa Vetten, a policy analyst at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, an organisation that protects the rights of women, has been fighting for the rights of women for most of her life.

IPS: When politicians speak about gender equality in this country can one really take them seriously? Lisa Vetten: The short answer is no. When gender is discussed in parliament and by politicians, the issue is reduced to quotas. The focus is on how many women should be in parliament – this is really how shallow the debate has become. Gender quotas have become a form of political patronage. The numbers of women in parliament have gone up, but in many instances we have taken steps backwards.

At the ANC’s general meeting at Polokwane in 2007, only one of the resolutions focused on women and it dealt with whether there should be a women’s ministry. There was nothing on violence or other gender issues.

Post-1994 there was a flurry of new laws focused on gender issues. Subsequently many people believe that women’s issues have been dealt with sufficiently. But the question remains how to implement the legal framework that is in place and how does one hold those in power accountable for failure to implement the laws?

Too little attention is paid to the budgets of the Departments of Justice and Peace and Security. If there is no budget allocation to back up the legislation, the legislation cannot be implemented.

IPS: Are the South African Police Service and the courts equipped to deal with all the rape cases? LV: In 2005 the Department of Justice declared a moratorium on the roll-out of sexual offences courts.

Most of the specialist units of the SAPS, amongst them the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units, were disbanded and services were integrated into the general police stations. Highly trained people are expected to deal with more general as well as specialist cases – without vehicles, cell phones and specialist support structures.

The courts are system-centred and not victim-centred – it is geared towards those who manage the system and not towards the victims. The courts impose arbitrary time limits for how long cases can sit on court rolls before being thrown out. It is about how quickly a case can be processed.

Subsequently a victim may not get her day in court and many perpetrators walk free. For example: An investigating officer may go on leave, but his overworked colleagues do not have the time to work on his cases as well as their own. Once he returns to office, the court may decide that the case has been going on for too long, and it is thrown out.

The police services are under pressure to meet performance targets. They have to reduce crime numbers and up the number of convictions. This leads to some officers refusing to take statements from women who cannot identify their attackers. Without an identifiable perpetrator, there is little likelihood of an arrest.

IPS: So the figures reflecting violence against women are under-reported? LV: The last research on this issue was done in 1997 by the Medical Research Council. The conclusion was that only one in nine women reported rape to the police.

I am sceptical about police statistics, because with the pressure to meet the performance targets, they can reduce crime numbers by juggling statistics. It is of concern if police report a decrease in rape cases. This proves that women are too scared to report assault.

The Jacob Zuma rape trial sent out a very negative message about how women in rape cases are being treated by the courts. (The woman in this case was publicly humiliated and beaten down by the defense team). If only one woman is turned away at at a thousand police stations contrywide, the rape statistics are brought down by a thousand cases per annum. It is not a true reflection of what is really happening.

Of all perpetrators who stand trial, only four percent is convicted. If a woman is turned away, a criminal thinks he can get away with his crime and this may in future lead to an increase in rapes.

Sexual violence does not just affect the victim. It has a ripple effect on the community. When misery becomes the norm, abuse is not seen as a crime. It becomes sanctioned by the community and restraint on behaviour is lost.

IPS: What should politicians do? LV: It is not good enough for politicians to run around on the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women in t-shirts emblazoned in logos without implementing real change. It should be recognised that victims should be dealt with properly by trained people who are adequately equipped and resourced.

Civil society should be given a chance to make submissions to parliamentary portfolio committees when government departments present their annual reports, enabling organisations to engage meaningfully with parliament around government’s performance will build and deepen democracy.

On another subject, in cases of domestic violence the problem is currently dealt with as a problem for the criminal justice system. If a man is found guilty, he is sent to jail and little thought is given to the woman who is left behind. Neither income grants nor job skills training are available for women have have been economically dependent all their lives. Agencies also tend to separate child abuse cases from domestic violence cases. However, these cases are often inseparable.

In the run-up to this year’s elections, I have yet to see a political party raising the issue of violence against women and children. They speak broadly of crime, but all crime is not the same.

There are some people in government who work themselves to the point of exhaustion around these issues, but the gains are often rolled back by people in more senior positions.

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