Why people make a difference to the experience of survivors

Previously we wrote about the space created for discussion as we partnered with the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society to host a panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa. However, it was not only the space that we were grateful for, but also the content of the discussion.

As the three researchers, Lisa Vetten, Dr Aisling Heath, and Karen Hollely, shared some key findings from their work and presented their opinions to the people that attended, there was a very clear golden thread tying together their findings: people. When victims of sexual offences were interviewed during research conducted by the Child Witness Institute, it was clear that people’s experience of the criminal justice system and sexual offences court depends on the people that work in the court and how supportive they are. This was the same for when magistrates and prosecutors were interviewed about working in sexual offences courts – justice is dispensed by people and who those people are, matter greatly.

As survivors experience the criminal justice system, they experience people. The prosecutor who interviews them and who leads their testimony. The interpreter translating their testimony. The magistrate acting as the presiding officer. And the court supporter, holding the survivor through the process. Clearly the criminal justice system is not some far away “system” devoid of human interaction.
Clearly the criminal justice system IS people.

The question then is how do we make sure that we have the right people who will not only limit secondary trauma suffered by the survivor, but will also ensure that justice is served and that perpetrators are convicted? Fortunately, research (like what was presented at this panel discussion) can provide enormous help in this regard and the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign uses this information when lobbying government for the rollout of sexual offences courts.

We are currently lobbying the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development to finalise the Regulations for Sexual Offences Courts. The regulations provide the minimum requirements for a sexual offences court to exist, including the people that should work at such a court. One of the issues that we lobbied for, is the inclusion of court supporters in the requirements for sexual offences court. We hear what researchers say about the importance of the right people providing support to survivors in the criminal justice system and we could use this information to lobby for specialised court supporters provided by Non-Profit Organisations and funded by the Department of Social Development. Although the regulations have not been finalised, we are very positive that specialised court supporters will be included.

The powerful thing about research then, is when words come to life. When research is used to make real-life changes in legislation and people’s experience of courts, that is when we know positive change is happening.

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Jeanne Bodenstein is the coordinator of the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign for the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.

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Rape from the courts perspective

Currently in South Africa survivors of sexual assault and rape often feel that the criminal justice system does not support them. This is why we are fighting for specialised sexual offences courts specialised sexual offences courts that only deal with sexual offences cases and provide special services to survivors. Therefore it is very important to understand exactly what is expected and required in order to prove that a rapist is guilty in the eyes of the law.

From the law and the court’s perspective there are certain things that are essential in making a solid case and having the case result in a conviction. To help you we have put together a list of the key steps you must take in order to provide the prosecutor and the courts with the strongest case possible against your assailant.

What evidence is needed to build a strong rape case: What can survivors do?

  1. Physical evidence

If you have been raped or assaulted do not remove your clothes or wash. Go straight to the nearest police station and request medical attention. There will be physical evidence on your body and clothes that will link the rapist to the crime and it is important that this evidence is collected as soon as possible after the rape. Physical or DNA evidence fades within 72 hours (three days) after the event so the sooner you have this evidence collected and submitted to the police the better.

If you know of a nearby hospital that is a designated as a forensic unit for assessing rape cases you may go straight there but it is important to note that not all hospitals or health facilities deal with rape cases.

  1. Forensic examination

In order to collect physical evidence such as the rapist’s saliva, blood, semen or hair you will need to have a forensic examination done within three days (or 72 hours) after the rape provided you have not washed this evidence away. You will be examined by a clinical forensic practitioner, which means a nurse or doctor who has been specially trained to gather evidence of crimes and offer medical treatment. This is often the strongest evidence in a rape case so it is important you have a forensic examination. However if more than three days have passed your case does still stand a chance of being heard so this should not stop you from reporting rape to the police.

It is also very important that you go to the hospital and get the required treatment. This will include antiretroviral drugs to prevent HIV, emergency contraception, antibiotics and the possible treatment of any injuries.

  1. First contact witness

The first person you talk to after you have been raped and tell about the rape is called the first contact witness. It is important that you speak to someone you trust and that you have this person’s contact details as the police will want to talk to them. They may be required to appear in court and give evidence to support your story.

  1. Police statement

You will need to give the police a statement of what happened. From the point of view of the law the sooner you can do this the better as the criminal has less chance to escape and you may be able to remember more about the rape right after it happened. If you are not in a position to have a full statement taken, you can give a brief statement and the investigating officer will make an appointment with you for the following day or ideally within 36 hours.

From the point of view of the prosecutor and the law, the more evidence that is collected and the sooner it is gathered after the crime the stronger the case will be in court. Once you have gone through these steps you can take some time to recover and decide whether or not you want to lay a charge against the person who raped you. Even if you are not sure whether you wish to lay a charge, it is better to have the forensic examination done, so that the evidence is there should you decide to lay a charge at a later date. Having strong evidence strengthens your case, and helps convict criminals, and to empower you as a survivor and as a witness in court.

For more information and practical advice on what to do if you are raped you can read our booklet; You and Rape, the essential guide for rape survivors.  

Download the You and Rape English booklet. https://rapecrisis.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/English.pdf

Download the You and Rape Afrikaans booklet. https://rapecrisis.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Afrikaans.pdf

For further information Shukumisa http://shukumisa.org.za has created a comprehensive guide called; Women know your rights, a simplified guide to your rights against sexual violence. Download it here.  http://shukumisa.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Woman-know-your-rights.pdf

Sharing insight to develop better court models

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Spaces where researchers, activists and students can gather to share thoughts, ideas and dreams, are few and far between. That is why we were so grateful and excited when the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Law and Society offered to partner with us to host a panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa.

This discussion was designed to follow on from the National Forum on the Implementation of the Sexual Offences Act that was presented by the Department of Justice at the end of 2017 and where some of the research concerning sexual offences courts was first presented to the public. However, only a handful of representatives from the NGO sector could attend the DOJ’s forum and we were interested to hear the views of others in the field of sexual violence, colleagues who work in courts and fellow activists.

Our panel discussion on developing court models in South Africa took place on 26 April 2018 in Cape Town and we were joined by three panellists; Lisa Vetten, from the Wits City Institute, Dr Aisling Heath from the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit at UCT, and Karen Hollely from the Child Witness Institute. Together they shared some of the key findings of their three separate research undertakings in the area of sexual offences in the court system. Their separate research studies looked at the experiences of victims of sexual violence in courts, the observation of court proceedings and the reviewing of court files. They not only shared their very interesting findings, but also their personal opinions of how this issue should be taken forward.

What made this event special is that it brought together groups from two worlds; those at the coal face working in courts, and those in front of the data and research analysing findings. In our experience it is felt that these two worlds don’t connect often enough and so the opportunities to bring these perspectives together to share insights and knowledge are always meaningful. Through the Court Support Project, Rape Crisis provides support services to survivors at five courts. This is an extremely an extremely important component of sexual offences courts. We believe that the very real experiences of our court supporters has the potential to add a depth and richness to the research done by these panellists. By the same stretch, their research helps to shed light on the systemic issues at play that influence the work that happens in courts.

The Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign (RSJC) believes that specialised sexual offences courts are the key to restoring faith in the criminal justice system by decreasing the secondary victimisation of rape survivors, and in so doing increasing conviction rates for rape. Learning from the findings of skilled researchers in combination with our own experiences is immensely valuable. It influences our RSJC strategy and helps us work towards answering the question that is central to our campaign; what do sexual offences courts need in order to be successful in South Africa?

 

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Jeanne Bodenstein is the coordinator of the Rape Survivors’ Justice Campaign for the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust.