If you are a woman in Cape Town you must feel very vulnerable. The recent spate of rapes and rape homicides that have struck at the heart of several quite diverse communities shows that there is no place safer for women than any other. You could be running in the Tokai forest, or close to your university, or going to the toilet in the middle of the night and someone might rape you. These recent examples in the media have made women more afraid than ever.
Yet in each of these three cases a suspect has been apprehended and is now in jail. So we are all safe again, right? The bad guys are locked up and the community is protected.
But of course this is not the end of the road either for the rapists or for the community. The pathway through the criminal justice system in these cases can be a long and winding road, from the forensic examination and analysis, to the arrest, to the investigation, to the trial. Where once again the community will need to get involved. What about those that will have to testify in court against the accused? The women in the community that gave them up, the men that witnessed something of what took place and who must now ensure through their evidence that the accused are not only locked up in the short term but are found guilty and sentenced to an appropriately longer imprisonment. How vulnerable will these witnesses feel as they take the stand, perhaps brushing past the accused as they take their place, making eye contact, speaking up, accusing? How safe will they feel then? What about their families? What about the rape survivor who must speak about deeply traumatic events under the gaze of the very person that traumatised her?
One of the ways that survivors and witnesses can be supported and helped to feel protected while testifying in court is through the mechanism of the specialised sexual offences courts. In these courts a specially trained prosecutor will deal with the case and interview the witnesses. There will be separate waiting rooms for victims and perpetrators. There will be a specialist magistrate who listens to the case. The specialisation is not just in the court itself but also in the surrounding support from local NGOs, rooted in the community served by the court, who inform witnesses about court role players and procedures, offer emotional support and tell them what will be required of them as they take the next necessary steps in the process.
At this time there are three specialised sexual offences courts in the Western Cape, two of them in Cape Town. It’s not enough.
The Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust will launch a campaign later this year that holds the South African Government accountable for promising to roll out sexual offences courts for the survivors of rape and sexual assault. There should be over 200 courts across the country. That means twenty courts a year for the next ten years. Can this be done? Has government got enough resources to deliver on its promise? We believe that with smart management of its current resources and careful planning, the government can make specialised courts a reality for all survivors across the country.
This has special meaning for those of you living in Cape Town.
On the one hand Cape Town has specialised help for survivors, which will not only lessen the trauma they endure but will also increase the likelihood of convictions. This keeps perpetrators off the streets, and makes our communities safer. On the other hand not all women, and not all rape survivors, have access to these specialised services, and they should all have equal access to them.
Rape Crisis currently offers court support services at five regional Cape Town courts and is lobbying government to make sure that enough specialised sexual offences courts are rolled out countrywide. To support us visit www.rapecrisis.org.za and be there for a rape survivor all the way to the completion of the trial.
Kathleen Dey is the Director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.