THE GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY
As the uproar continues over gender-based violence in the country civil society organisations have raised concerns over an apparent reduction in funding for sexual offences courts. Government has responded by saying the funding worries are misguided. By GREG NICOLSON.
Civil society organisations have raised concern over the future of sexual offences courts after Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffrey mentioned a cheaper and less-resourced model to fund the courts which have been hailed as crucial for providing support to survivors of gender-based violence (GBV).
Cases of violence against women have dominated news in the last week and several political leaders have called for action to prevent attacks and provide support and justice for those affected. Any reduction in resources for sexual offences courts, which were scrapped around 2008 but reintroduced in 2014 on the recommendation of a government task team, could set the fight against GBV back.
“Any plan to reduce the resources to sexual offences courts fundamentally erodes and undermines the whole idea of bringing them back in the first place,” said Sanja Bornman of Lawyers for Human Rights' gender equality programme.
“A decision was made to reintroduce these courts based on the appropriate model recommended in the task team report. Civil society backed the idea and the law was passed for this to happen. It would be unacceptable for the state to now go half-way on implementation.”
Kathleen Dey, national director of Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust said civil society was not consulted on the new costing model and any plan to reduce resources devoted to the courts would go against the task team’s recommendations. “The recommended resources are all there for very specific reasons, directly linked to the needs of victims and improved conviction rates.”
The courts are designed to provide specific care in the handling of sexual violence cases. They are staffed by prosecutors, magistrates, social workers, investigating officers and healthcare workers trained to handle such cases and are located near Thuthuzela Care Centres, facilities lauded as crucial in combatting sexual violence.
Jeffrey was quoted as saying his “department finalised its partnership with Unicef to develop a less resourced and less costly sexual offences courts model.” On Friday, the deputy minister said the reaction from the civil society organisations was overblown and perhaps his comments were misunderstood.
He said the justice department has not entered into an agreement with Unicef on a funding model but has agreed to develop one.
Jeffrey said he would not have been proud to announce a funding cut. He said his critics could have got clarity before releasing their statement. The department planned to revamp 57 sexual offences courts in three years, he said, and it exceeded its goal by one court. Phase two of the plan includes revamping 106 courts over the next 10 years. That plan hasn’t changed, he said.
“This is primarily about the other courts not covered in phase two,” he said of the Unicef agreement. Jeffrey explained that the department and Unicef are looking into how to establish courts in areas with low numbers of sexual offence cases. Those courts would potentially operate on the low-cost model.
Marike Keller, from Sonke Gender Justice, said sexual offences courts provide a crucial service. “They’ve been very effective,” she said on Friday. They offer psycho-social support to reduce victims’ secondary trauma.
She said the courts lower the chances of victims withdrawing cases and they lead to increased convictions. Any reduction in support for the courts could see an accompanying reduction in sexual violence cases laid and a lack of psycho-social support for victims.
Concern over funding for the courts has come as brutal killings and rapes have highlighted the country’s GBV crisis. On Friday, speaking at the funeral of Karabo Mokoena, who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend recently, Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini was quoted by News24 as saying: “This must be a lesson to all of us. Stop politicising issues that affect us on a daily basis because we’re misleading children.” She continued, “Men, this must come to an end.”
The ANC this week called on the police to charge perpetrators of violence against women and society to stand up against the scourge. “Society has a responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable amongst us are protected at all times,” said ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa. “We call on men in particular to reject and actively organise against this scourge which robs us of our mothers, our sisters; our nation’s pride.”
The DA has requested the National Assembly to hold a debate of national importance on violence against women. The EFF called for a national day of action against patriarchal violence.
Government has been criticised for failing to take necessary steps to tackle GBV. Professionals working in the sector have called on the state to introduce a national strategic plan to confront gender-based violence and to up-scale programmes that have been shown to work on both prevention and response issues. DM