What happens to rape kits? Here’s a partial answer, in three acts.
Act I: Nothing. They never show up.
Two years ago, South Africa was rocked by the news that police stations in Gauteng and North West were running out of rape kits. Parliament’s portfolio committee on policing wrote to the national police commissioner and told her to sort the crisis out instantly: “This is totally unacceptable and we strongly condemn the shortage of these kits.”
Act II: They are processed and then thrown by the side of the road.
Last year, during the Khayelitsha Commission of Inquiry, Dr Genine Josias, Principal Medical officer at Khayelitsha’s Thutuzela Forensic Centre, discussed the work of her centre and of the police. Here’s how the Commission records her statement:
“Dr Josias testified how much care Thuthuzela puts into the taking of forensic samples. Sexual Assault Evidence Collection boxes (or “rape kits”) have been designed and produced, each with a unique bar code, into which all forensic samples are put, and duly marked with the bar code. Included in the kit is a copy of the medical examiner’s report. When the kit has been completed, it is given to the investigating officer to ensure its delivery to the Forensic Science Laboratory for analysis. The rape kit has to be registered in the exhibits register at the Police station, and then signed out and taken to the laboratory. Dr Josias testified that sometimes they run out of the rape kits, which creates quite a problem, and they have to improvise. At other times, they are provided with rape kits that have passed their expiry dates.
“During the course of 2011, according to Dr Josias, it came to her attention that several of these kits, bearing the name of the Khayelitsha Thuthuzela Centre had been found, dumped, in a field in Delft … Dr Josias testified that the members of the Centre found the dumping of the rape kits to be `very disturbing, disappointing and shocking. As she explained, `what it meant was that all the work that had been put into collecting that forensic evidence, the meticulous methods used, the resources and skills employed to do so and precious times spent by all concerned went to waste’. It also meant, of course, that prosecutions in the cases to which the dumped kits related could not proceed.”
Later, Dr. Josias wondered, “I just ask myself what we do at the centre. Why do we collect DNA evidence meticulously? Why are doctors and nurses on standby day and night to collect evidence if this fails our patients?”
Act III: The kits are collected and left, sometimes for decades, unprocessed on a shelf
Earlier this month, in the state of Virginia in the United States, the Virginia Department of Forensic Science presented to the Governor and General Assembly its Physical Evidence Recovery Kit Inventory Report, in which it reported that 2369 rape kits were sitting on shelves, unprocessed: two from the 1980s; 73 from the 1990s; 576 from 2000 to 2009; and, from 2010 to 2014, 1709. Nine were classified as of unknown years. The bad news, as if this isn’t bad enough, is that Virginia is actually one of the better states in the United States.
In 2009, Detroit found more than 11,000 unprocessed kits. In 2010, Memphis found 12,000, some dating from the 1970s. City after city, state after state, the story is the same. And the story emerged because rape survivors, like Debbie Smith in Williamsburg, Virginia, insisted on rape kits being tested. She became an “activist for rape kit testing”. Think about that phrase. Rape kits require activists. That’s where we are.
What’s going on here? From too few to dumped in a field to left on the shelves, the point is the same: it’s just not that important to law enforcement agencies and officers. By “it” is meant “women.” Make that change. Make sure the rape kits are treated properly. It’s a small step … and yet a giant leap.
If you want to offer your support to rape survivors, join Rape Crisis at their Mandela Day event.
Dan Moshenberg writes at Women In and Beyond the Global and at Africa Is a Country, and is Director of the Women’s Studies Program at The George Washington University in Washington, DC.