Opinionista Alison Tilley 5 December 2013

Sexual violence: What victims – and the rest of us – really need

With under a week to go, the 16 Days of No Violence Against Women and Children will be winding up. You will probably breathe a sigh of relief – I know I will.

The media have been and are being fabulous. Radio shows, op eds, articles, stories – I cant think of a single media outlet that hasn’t talked about the campaign, and tried to bring their heft to the fight against one of the things we as gender activists are most concerned about. (Except possibly Business Day?) It’s exhausting – on top of the usual litany of death and despair, everyone trying to give their ideas about how to combat the scourge. Aside from the usual resurgence of the ‘chop their goolies off’ line of thinking, not much has been put forward by way of solutions that’s grabbed public attention.

Thousands of rapes, murders, and assaults take place each year, without much public attention being given to them unless they are particularly sensational in some way. You would think that if there were solutions to hand that there would be enormous political will to back those solutions. But there are some solutions aimed at addressing the problem – already been accepted by government – that somehow just aren’t moving beyond the drafting table. What’s going on?

The Open Democracy Advice Centre, the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and the Women’s Legal Centre have conducted research and compiled the ‘Road to Justice Report on Victim Empowerment Legislation in South Africa’. The report identified four key gaps in in the way we deal with victims of crime in South Africa in general, but also rape in particular, which have major implications for arresting and convicting perpetrators, and making sure survivors come back better and stronger.

Firstly, victims of violent crime need more general information about what is available to them by way of assistance, information about the Criminal Justice System, the role that they are required to play within that system and information about how the law works. Victims need prompt and accurate information about their progress through the health, South African Police Services (SAPS), forensic investigation, justice and correctional services processes. They do not always understand what is required of them, and are often too traumatised to care. Their concern as victims is to secure their safety, not to quickly brush up on their criminal procedure. So we often lose witnesses and evidence in the early stages of an investigation, because people don’t know how to make the system work.

Secondly, when victims of crime don’t get the help they need, they don’t have anywhere effective to get redress. There is a need for better accountability mechanisms in the provision of victim empowerment services, so that victims can complain if their rights are not upheld or if they are not offered the services they have a right to receive. Officials need to be held accountable for poor delivery. If the state services offered don’t work, they neither help the victim nor deal with the criminal.

Thirdly, departments don’t work together. At local, provincial and national level, victims of crime move in and out of the crime, justice, welfare and health systems, with patchy results. And fourthly, victims of crime don’t get the counselling and care that allows them to get their lives back together, and go on, hopefully stronger and able to support others going through the same thing.

If these gaps are addressed, we will have victims of crime who are able to work more effectively with the criminal justice system in bringing perpetrators to book.

These gaps have been there for some time now, and there is agreement that they need to be addressed. The Department of Social Development has had a draft law in process for two years now that will address these issues but nothing has been made public yet, let alone tabled for comment. Why not? Is it inertia created by a sense of being overwhelmed? I know we all feel overwhelmed from time to time, but that just isn’t a good excuse for not getting a move on with solutions both identified and agreed on.

That is not all. The question about crime statistics must again be asked. How are communities to take up the fight against crime when they are systematically denied the information that would allow them to organise more effectively? All the way down to Community Police Forum level, people are given statistics that are up to 18 months old. Many of the statistics such as those on sexual offences are not disaggregated. What are communities to do with that? Some City Improvement Districts are simply gathering their own information, using web-based systems which allow them to map crimes, when they happen, and what pattern they follow. Working with local security firms, they are in a position to deploy security in those areas in a way which meets the fluctuating needs for security.

Much of this comes down to information. Quite simply, the more you know, the more empowered you are to act. Some systemic solutions can be put in place to ensure a better-informed and more active survivor. Some solutions can be implemented ahead of legislation, like tech solutions to share information with survivors, or crowdsourcing information about crime patterns. Some communities clearly have a head start – they have the resources to fund rape crisis centres, hire security guards, and map where crime is happening. Many do not. Communities don’t need to wait for government to act – they can and do organise magnificently in the face of few resources. But we need more – and more than just concern. Inertia, for whatever reason, is not an option. DM

On behalf of the Victim Empowerment Law SA Coalition:

Alison Tilley, Open Democracy Advice Centre

Kath Dey, Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust

Jennifer Williams, Women’s Legal Centre

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