Bring Justice to 100 Rape Victims in S. Africa

 
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Diepsloot
Diepsloot

Over 500,000 people are crowded into the 5 square kilometer settlement of Diepsloot on the northern edge of Johannesburg. In this mainly black African community, unemployment rates are nearly 50% and poverty and dismal living conditions are the norm. The community has no courts and only one temporary police station. Building on the permanent police station began in 2008 and continues today, despite the fact that Diepsloot is one of the most dangerous areas in South Africa. In 2012-2013, at least one case of violent assault was reported every day, amounting to 595 reported cases that year alone.

In a community that struggles to receive even basic services, legal services are non-existent. To address the gap in direct legal services, Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) began working in Diepsloot twice a week in July 2014. LvA has taken on 8 clients in need of protection orders and is in the midst of a rapid needs assessment of the community to determine what other legal services are in greatest demand. Already, we have identified the critical need to engage more rigorously with the clerks and magistrates of the nearest court that is over 30 kilometers away, where women’s applications for protection orders are often refused simply due to misunderstandings in the law.

Given the complex nature of gender-based violence, it is clear to us that direct legal services are not enough. LvA has partnered with RedPeg, an NGO dedicated to strategic HIV/AIDS intervention, to conduct 5-day workshops for police officers on the Sexual Offences Act and its implementation. LvA is also working to expand its reach and impact by building a community centre that is a safe-space for women in Diepsloot. An architect with expertise in designing female-friendly spaces in an urban setting will be designing our centre. By providing women with a safe haven in their community, we aim to help them heal, grow, and thrive.

LvA’s work in Diepsloot is just the beginning. Our goal is to engage with a range of state actors both within and outside the community. By engaging police, hospital personnel, magistrates, and prosecutors, LvA seeks to educate and gain their support in the important fight against gender-based violence in South Africa.

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LvA Team Holding Handbook at the Launch
LvA Team Holding Handbook at the Launch

On the 11th of April 2014 Lawyers against Abuse (LvA), along with two of our partner organizations, CALS and SECTION27, launched “My Teacher Hurt Me What Should I Do?”, a handbook for students, parents and communities in dealing with sexual violence. The launch symbolically took place at the Women’s Jail on Constitution Hill. Once a prison for political dissidents during the Apartheid Era, Constitution Hill is now the location of the Constitutional Court and a symbol of democracy’s victory over racial oppression. Although South Africa’s progressive Constitution guarantees rights to all, the reality on the ground is very different and levels of sexual violence in our society remain extremely high. The choice of the Women’s Jail as the venue for the launch was a stark reminder that too many women in South Africa remain trapped in their fear of violence and the knowledge that too often the system fails to protect them.

The launch served to introduce the Handbook to educators, state actors, media and other NGO’s working with victims and survivors of sexual violence. The Handbook acts a guide for children, families and community members in managing sexual abuse in schools. It is written in such a way as to make it accessible to children from the age of nine upwards. In our work, we often experience how difficult it can be to navigate the criminal justice system and how reporting sexual abuse can be a daunting and sometimes impossible task for victims, especially children. The Handbook not only informs the victims of their rights but also provides information on the necessary places to go to and what they, as well as the state actors, need to do. This is the first step in ensuring that victims receive knowledge that can empower them to report incidences of sexual violence.

Representatives from four NGO’s spoke about the next steps of the campaign, which include distribution of the Handbook and educating youth, through workshops, on the nature of sexual violence and their options when violence occurs. LvA has already begun conducting workshops with schoolchildren using the Handbook as a tool. Our workshops also seek to engage students on misconceptions and stereotypes that often create a stigma around sexual abuse and therefore become an obstacle to reporting. Finally, in order to ensure accessibility and facilitate distribution there are currently plans in place for translation of the Handbook into the other official languages.

The launch was highly successful with over a dozen organizations, including media, NGO’s and schools, requesting copies of the Handbook. At the launch LvA’s founder, Professor Bonita Meyersfeld, compared combating sexual violence to “a bus that people get on and off of”, providing insight into why the problem of sexual abuse remains prevalent. Her challenge to the audience was clear: dedication and momentum are needed to create an impact and our hope is that the Handbook can serve as a starting point for action in communities and schools across the country.

Guests attending the Handbook Launch
Guests attending the Handbook Launch

This report is written by Chi Nguyen, our In-the-Field Representative for Southern Africa. Chi will be traveling the nine countries of Southern Africa, visiting and assisting our current partner organizations, for the first half of 2014.

 

On Friday, April 11th, my colleague Moeko Shinohara and I had the pleasure of meeting Shayda and her Fundraising Manager to learn all about the ins and outs of Lawyers Against Abuse. We were pleasantly impressed with the way LvAgoes about their mission - with a highly educated and sentitive approach, we coudln't imagine clients of LvA receiving anything but the beset type of care, treatment, and attention. In addition to providing psychosocial support for their clients, they also mediate between all parties in the justice system to ensure that it works just as it should for the sexual abuse victims of Johannesburg - that their paperwork, their arguments, and their cases are not all lost and forgotten in the system and that some sort of justice be carried out.

From what we've gathered from our meeting, LvA is a constantly self-evaluating organization that strives to improve every day, staying dynamic and mobile as an organization. Their current goals are a new location to provide their clients with more privacy, and an additional attorney to serve a larger number of people in the community by 2015. Even with the limited funding they have received thus far, they have done much in the way of successfully conceptualizing their framework and knowing their path and goals. They are on their way to perfecting the art of listening, and in doing so are constantly providing their clients with the best possible treatment. We look forward to bearing witness to the growth of LvA as an organization and to the success they will have with their current and future clients. Above all, we look forward to witnessing to their success in their fight for the rights of victims of rape and sexual abuse who so desperately need their help, and to bearing witness to their impact on the Johannesburg social system as a whole.

Hillbrow Participants in Know Your Rights Workshop
Hillbrow Participants in Know Your Rights Workshop

“But a man cannot be raped!” yelled a young woman from Hillbrow during a recent workshop at the Hillbrow Community Outreach Foundation. The young man next to her vehemently disagreed, insisting that anyone could be raped. Both turned to the workshop facilitators for guidance, indignant and certain they were correct. This workshop, conducted by LvA on March 31 2014, is the first in a series of community based workshops designed to create awareness around sexual violence and introduce a new resource we have recently developed entitled “Managing Sexual Abuse in Schools: A Guide for Children, Families and Community Members”. The journey to this handbook and the accompanying community workshops has been a long one. In 2012, LvA found itself involved, within a short span of time, in 8 cases of sexual violence in schools. Each of these cases involved the rape of students by teachers and misconduct by police, prosecutors, and department of education officials in the way in which the cases were managed. Together with two of our partner organizations, LvA worked to push these cases through the Department of Education and the criminal justice system. As a result, one teacher has been dismissed and the other cases are still pending.  Appalled by the lack of teacher accountability within schools and the weak government response to so egregious an abuse of power, LvA decided to develop, in collaboration with our partner organizations, a handbook for students, their parents, communities and educators. The handbook focuses on how to identify incidents of sexual violence with a step-by-step guide on how to report these cases. It is illustrated to make it easy to read and is written to be accessible to anyone aged 9 or older. On April 11 2014, we are hosting a launch at the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg to introduce the handbook to like-minded organizations, state actors and educators.

We soon realized that the handbook alone is not sufficient to raise awarenss around issues of sexual violence in schools. We have therefore begun a series of workshops for students in schools and aftercare programs in order to equip them with the knowledge and skills needed to identify and report cases of sexual violence. We also plan to conduct workshops and distribute the handbook amongst community-based organizations, paralegals and police officers working on cases of this nature. We believe that awareness raising and information sharing are necessary steps in addressing sexual violence in schools and hopefully shifting attitutes within communities about the gravity of sexual violence. Our first workshop at the Community Outreach Foundation demonstrated the need for such workshops as well as the handbook. Through their comments we learned that the youth were accutely aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in their schools and communities and had been fed a lot of information regarding such violence. However, while some of their knowledge was accurate, much of it was steeped in stereotypes and misunderstandings around gender-based violence.

By the end of our workshop, all conceded that a man, like a waman, could be the victim of sexual violence and other similar misunderstands were resolved as we worked our way through common misconceptions. Our hope is that the knowledge shared will be passed on to others in the community and with time, the stigma attached to sexual violence will lessen and survivors of violence will be more inclined to come forward.

Hillbrow Participants in Know Your Rights Workshop
Hillbrow Participants in Know Your Rights Workshop

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In the two months I have worked at Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) I have experienced first-hand the barriers to justice for victims and survivors of gender-based violence.  In attempts to engage with government authorities on behalf of our clients, I have been yelled at, verbally harassed and simply ignored.  The re-traumatization of individuals seeking help is real and sometimes all attempts to alleviate the problem feel futile.  But in my short time at LvA I have also met individuals whose perseverance and sincere desire for justice has resulted in real change.  I would like to share with you, our supporters, a case that demonstrates the strength of one such individual.

When I first met Maddy, with her gentle smile and dainty hat, I could not have guessed the number of obstacles she had encountered in her pursuit of justice.  A year before our meeting, her mentally-disabled teenage grandson had been raped by an older woman, an incident he described to Maddy as “being forced to make a baby.”  Outraged, Maddy approached the police who turned her away despite their duty to open a case and ensure immediate medical and DNA testing.  When finally in court, the Magistrate told Maddy that the case was “rubbish” and repeatedly made clear his views that the accused woman could not be guilty of such a crime.  Maddy lodged a formal complaint and successfully requested a new Magistrate.  Nevertheless, the new Magistrate found the woman not guilty and the State Prosecutor chose not to appeal.  A lack of appreciation for the boy’s mental disability and stigma against male victims of rape most likely riddled the remainder of the proceedings.

Where most would have given up, Maddy became even more determined.  She approached LvA insisting on an appeal and, on her own initiative, arranged a meeting with the Chief Prosecutor.  Because of Maddy’s perseverance, LvA is now working together with the Prosecutor’s Office to bring an appeal in this case.  The Chief Prosecutor not only listened to Maddy’s concerns but warmly welcomed assistance from LvA, demonstrating her genuine desire to see justice done.  Public officials like her are a further reminder that we are moving in the right direction. 

This case will be the first time LvA has been invited to assist the State in a criminal proceeding.  It will serve as a unique opportunity for us to support State officials in a case of gender-based violence and develop a relationship that will in future assist other victims.  This also represents an important step in realizing LvA’s vision of an integrated approach to gender-based violence, one in which prosecutors, police, hospitals and community-based organizations work together in supporting victims and survivors of violence.  Most importantly, by working together in this case, Maddy’s desire for justice can finally be realized.

[Please note that the names in this piece have been changed to protect our client’s identity.]

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Project Leader

Shayda Vance

Legal Fellow
Braamfontein, Johannesburg, Gauteng South Africa

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