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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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.

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament

It seems an opportune time to comment on Parliament. After all, the very foundation of its colonial decorum is being questioned by many, and it has recently done little to indicate the integrity, efficacy and ethics that one would expect from the arm of government tasked with oversight.

Our President, it seems, can be both lawless and celebrated by ‘honourable’ members in the plenary, and we the public are supposed to sit back whilst our tax and VAT are spent on refurbishments rather than services. When things get too sensitive, Parliament is simply put on hold, while the party asking the real and only question the nation wants the President to answer is thrown out.

But there is more to the working of Parliament than just the plenary. The plenary is, around the world, an opportunity for grandstanding and heckling. The work of Parliament happens in Parliamentary Committee meetings. It is here that legislation is debated, that oversight is proposed and undertaken, that opportunities for public participation are facilitated, and that ‘cooperative governance’ (as yet unsuccessful) is considered. So what does it mean when the number of committees is cut, whilst the number of Departments they are required to oversee grows? This question is particularly pertinent for the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), where the number of Committees stands at a paltry eleven.

Perhaps it’s worth clarifying what the focus of the NCOP should be. As the Council of Provinces, the focus is essentially provincial. Yes, national budgets and legislation are (or should be) considered there, but when it comes to oversight and public participation, the focus is clearly on the nine individual provinces. This is important because much of South Africa’s spending happens at this level, and even more so at the municipal level.

Consider the budget of the Department for Social Development, for example. This money is dispersed to provincial Departments, who can pick and choose the areas they spend on defined, purportedly, by provincial interests. Social Development is responsible for a number of things via their funding of NGOs – shelters, drug and alcohol abuse programs, social workers in the province, Thuthuzela Care Centres, children’s rights, the rights of people with disability, and support for the many abused women in South Africa. But what happens when these critical areas do not receive sufficient funding? What happens when Parliament doesn’t notice? What happens when it has been redesigned not to notice?

Perhaps that sounds very conspiratorial – a grand government scheme to get away with things. But when you consider that the Portfolio Committee on Social Development only considers social development issues, and the Select Committee on Social Services considers issues of social development, health, human settlements, home affairs, and water and sanitation, then you have to ask, how is the Committee supposed to adequately or regularly check whether the DSD is adequately funding NGOs? The truthful answer is it can’t. And if the Portfolio Committee doesn’t get around to it, then NGO funding doesn’t get checked at all.

The same could be said for women’s issues. At a Portfolio Committee level there is the Portfolio Committee on Women in the Presidency. This committee is tasked with oversight over the Department of Women in the Presidency, which to date has not clarified what it is that they will actually be doing. Their website still speaks to issues of children and disability, hangovers from the previous department. They don’t know what their budgetary allocation will be for this year. Even when they are called before the Committee, they can’t answer. So the work of that Committee is focussed on clarifying the role and responsibilities of the Department of Women in the Presidency, and on hearing from the Commission for Gender Equality. What happens then when women on the ground, the 27 plus million women in South Africa, are not receiving services appropriate to their needs?

The task of looking at what is happening at the provincial level would fall to the Select Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Yes, you read that right. This Committee, like the previous one mentioned, is tasked with being an oversight giant. Issues that fall under the mandate of this committee include cooperative governance, traditional affairs, public services and administration, youth, women, and intergovernmental relations. You’ll notice that local government falls in there – which means that every time there is a municipality in crisis it is this committee that must respond. What does that mean for the rights of women? When will those be considered to be in crisis?

The new configuration of committees in the National Council of Provinces has severely hindered the ability of Parliament to support and further women’s rights, or to consider the needs of the numerous NGOs that fund them. The revised structure makes it impossible to adequately fulfil its task as the institution guarding democracy. We should all be very concerned.

Helen Johnston