Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA

by Lawyers Against Abuse
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA
Legal Aid for Victims of Domestic Violence in SA

50-year-old Thembi* came to LvA in April 2018 for help after her estranged husband, George*, doused their shack with paraffin and set it alight, with Thembi and her children trapped inside. This was not the first time George had done this. Throughout their 28-year marriage, George would become physically violent and then try to set the house alight using paraffin. In fact, George was out on bail for a different criminal offence when this incident took place. LvA accompanied Thembi to the police station and reported the incident to the detective branch commander who assisted in taking Thembi’s statement and effecting arrest.

Over the following months, Thembi faced tremendous pressure from George’s family to resolve the matter within the family. At the time, Thembi’s daughter was in the process of initiating her customary marriage. For the marriage to proceed, members of George’s family would need to engage in lobola negotiations with the groom’s family. George’s family informed Thembi that they refused to participate in negotiations unless she withdrew her criminal case against George and apologised to him for “airing the family’s dirty laundry in public.”All these incidents triggered Thembi’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which she had developed as a result of years of ongoing abuse.

When Thembi first came to LvA, she had lost all hope and believed her life would not have any positive outcomes. She was unable to go to work due to illness and was prescribed 16 tablets daily to cope. Thembi’s criminal case against George was also taking strain on her health as the justice system repeatedly failed her. The investigating officer assigned to the case repeatedly told LvA that the docket was “lost.” Unsurprisingly, the docket was “found” shortly after LvA reported the matter to the detective branch commander, however, critical evidence was missing from the docket. At that point, Thembi expressed that she did not have the strength to fight for justice because everyone just hurt and betrayed her. She decided to take unpaid leave from work to give therapy a chance. LvA’s drama therapist formulated a treatment plan for Thembi to find ways to cope in her challenges and began seeing her several times per week. Drama Therapy was applied by using movement therapy premised on Mindfulness Philosophy. Through this practice, Thembi was given an opportunity to accept things in her life that she could not change and focus on things that she could change.

At the same time, LvA’s legal team continued to support her throughout her criminal case. When the matter was finally placed on the court roll, the prosecutor assigned to the case pressured Thembi to mediate saying that there was insufficient evidence to support a criminal charge. The prosecutor stated that the only possible criminal charge would be ‘malicious damage to property,’ however, because Thembi and George were married in community of property, George was effectively destroying his own property when he set it alight. LvA argued that the charge should be ‘attempted murder’ because George made sure to trap Thembi and her children inside the shack before setting it on fire. When the prosecutor refused to budge, LvA reported the matter to the Senior Public Prosecutor (SPP) who, upon review of the evidence, agreed with LvA and changed the charge from malicious damage to property to attempted murder. Further, the SPP removed the prosecutor from the case and agreed to try the matter himself. In addition, due to LvA’s repeated follow-up, the detective branch commander personally apologised to Thembi for the investigating officer’s poor handling of her case and ensured that the missing evidence was added to the docket including a new statement from Thembi which reflects the full account of the incident. Thembi’s case then proceeded to trial, which would have never happened without LvA’s repeated interventions at every level of the justice system.  

After months of therapy, Thembi’s personal wellbeing has also had a positive shift. She has been able to stop taking prescribed medication for her psychosomatic reactions due to stress and has appeared to have rediscovered a sense of hope and optimism in her life. When her therapist noted these changes, Thembi shared that she had rediscovered herself after having lost herself in her marriage to George. While Thembi initially did not see divorce as an option, she recently shared that she plans to file for divorce and feels confident that she will be able to deal with any corresponding challenges. Thembi appears to no longer believe that she is destined to suffer and is looking forward going back to work and rebuilding her life and hopes to find a good partner who will not hurt her. When reflecting on her own journey, Thembi shared “The challenges are still there... But I am strong now to face my challenges without any fear. I am bold, strong, courageous, stable and grounded. Nothing and no one will stand on my way of reaching my destiny or goal… I am ready to face the world. The hatred is gone… Now, I am full of love, happiness, and cooperation. I am a changed person.” 

Thembi’s story demonstrates the power of LvA’s integrated approach. Through LvA’s legal and psychosocial support, Thembi was empowered to become the author of her own narrative in holding George accountable for his actions and finding the courage to rebuild a life free from abuse. Once hopeless, Thembi now feels that her story can give hope to other victims of gender-based violence.

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“Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much”

Such was the sentiment hanging in the air when the Diepsloot Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Forum launched in 2018. Both state and non-state actors working side by side, deeply committed to ensuring a coordinated approach to reducing levels of GBV in Diepsloot, and, to improve welfare, health and justice services provision in the community. One of the key focus areas for the GBV Forum is to raise awareness in the community.

To accomplish that objective, the Forum planned an Anti-Rape March to take place on 31 May 2019. The intention was to ensure that the message was spread far and wide through the use of various channels to communicate our message. One such mobilisation strategy was a door-to-door campaign where over 100 service providers armed with informative leaflets contended with some problematic attitudes from the community, including men who argued that “GBV is an unsolvable problem and no amount of awareness raising can stop rape” and that “only children can be raped, the rest are attention seekers.

The women community members spoken to expressed anger and mistrust towards the criminal justice system saying that reporting cases is pointless since they “don’t go anywhere.” The sense that the criminal justice system fails to hold rapists accountable seemed prevalent amongst residents. Undeterred by this backlash, the campaigners continued to engage community members and extend an invitation to participate in the planned Anti-Rape March.

In addition to the door-to-door campaign, print and broadcast media were also used to disseminate information. For example, LvA utilised Sloot.FM, a local community radio station, to educate community members on GBV issues and to shape and inform public discussions leading up to the March. Written media was also engaged with local newspapers such as Diepsloot’s Township News, Fourways Review and Midrand Reporter, as well as Daily Sun, which is South Africa’s biggest daily newspaper, reporting on the March.

Fortified with pamphlets, banners, loud hailer and singing voices, the campaigners convened for the March on 31 May 2019 at the taxi rank in Diepsloot, Extension 1. Accompanied by police vans and drill officers, we marched through the streets of Diepsloot to the Mashamplan informal settlement, with scores of community members joining along the way. The Mashamplan informal settlement was intentionally selected to serve as the ending point for the March as it has one of the highest percentages of reported rape cases in Diepsloot according to Diepsloot Police. At this site, GBV Forum Members addressed community members in attendance, sharing information about services provided and answering any questions that arose. Most importantly, this event showed solidarity with survivors of sexual violence by reminding them that they are not alone. GBV in all its forms is a solvable problem and together we can eradicate it.

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In April 2017, Mantwa* went out with her friends for a drink. After her friends had left, she was approached by her ex-boyfriend, Joshua*, who then forced her back to her shack in the early hours of the morning. Once outside, he began to beat her so she would open the door. When she refused, he broke all the nearby exterior lights to gain the cover of darkness and continued his brutal attack on Mantwa, including raping her. The attack went on for several hours and, despite her screams, no one came to Mantwa’s aid. One of Mantwa’s neighbours called the police and when they eventually arrived, Joshua escaped.

Mantwa went to the police station to open a case and was then taken for medical assistance where she was referred to LvA for further support. Fortunately, the police were able to find and arrest Joshua that same day. LvA immediately began providing Mantwa with critical legal and psychosocial support, beginning what would become a 22-month journey to justice.

In the months that followed, LvA engaged with the investigating officer assigned to Mantwa’s case to ensure that it moved forward and did not fall through the cracks and provided Mantwa with ongoing trauma debriefing and counselling. LvA also learned that Mantwa had been fired as a result of needing to take time off for her follow-up medical appointments as her employer did not believe that she had been raped. LvA immediately contacted Werksmans Pro Bono Diepsloot Legal Clinic who agreed to assist Mantwa in bringing a case against her former employer at the CCMA, which was ultimately successful.

Mantwa’s case went to trial in October 2017. And, despite strong DNA evidence linking Joshua to the crime, the trial dragged on for over 16 months. This was, in large part, due to extensive delay tactics used by Joshua and his defence attorney in an attempt to frustrate and discourage Mantwa from pursuing the case, including requiring a highly specialised interpreter. Joshua was no stranger to the criminal justice system. He was a known serial rapist and gang member, having raped at least four other women in Diepsloot, including two women that Mantwa knew personally – one of which had committed suicide following the rape and the other had left Diepsloot altogether. Throughout the trial proceedings, Joshua continued to threaten Mantwa and the other witnesses to drop the case through members of his gang. A group of women from the community even went to Mantwa’s house to pressure her to drop the case, but she persevered.

At each trial hearing, the court room would be filled with Joshua’s family and friends. Each time Joshua was brought in, he would turn around and stare menacingly at Mantwa to further intimidate her. LvA’s Sr. Staff Attorney attended each hearing with Mantwa so she would not be alone, nine in total. In a show of support, several of Mantwa’s friends and other LvA staff members and volunteers also attended some of the hearings. As one can imagine, each hearing was emotionally draining for Mantwa and her friends (who were also witnesses in the case) due to Joshua’s extremely violent nature and, consequently, the personal risk for their continued involvement in this case. In fact, after completing their testimony, Mantwa and several witnesses relocated to another province out of fear for their safety if they remained in Diepsloot.

In June 2018, Mantwa took the stand and bravely told her story to the magistrate. Throughout her testimony, Joshua was so brazen that he would laugh out loud in court, to the point where the magistrate had to reprimand him for his behaviour. But Mantwa never wavered. In addition to drawing on her own strength, Mantwa had formed a strong relationship with LvA’s Sr. Social Worker who had provided ongoing counselling and court preparation and debriefing throughout the process. Through these sessions, Mantwa had an opportunity to process her initial trauma, prepare for the secondary trauma experienced during her trial hearings and foster the resilience and strength necessary to not only see her case through, but to begin to move forward with her life.

After another nine months of hearings and further delay tactics, Joshua was convicted in February 2019 and sentenced to life imprisonment. This result would not have been possible without the extraordinary strength, courage and determination shown by Mantwa and her friends who risked their own safety to fight for justice. When reflecting on her case, Mantwa expressed “I am so thankful to those who fought so hard for me” (referring to the support she received from LvA as well as the excellent work done by the State prosecutor in this case). And now, a man who thought he was untouchable, will remain behind bars, thus ending his reign of terror on women in the Diepsloot community.

*Note that names have been changed to protect the client’s confidentiality.

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Conducting a workshop on GBV
Conducting a workshop on GBV

As we pause to reflect back on 2018, we are encouraged by what was accomplished, strengthened through challenges faced, and thankful for the lessons we learned along the way. Here are just a few of the highlights.

In 2018, LvA provided legal and/or psychosocial support to 277 victims of gender-based violence (GBV), including sexual violence, domestic violence, and child abuse. Note that this included 217 new clients in 2018 and 60 clients who LvA began supporting in prior years.

LvA provided direct legal services to 214 GBV victims. Specifically, LvA provided protection order assistance to 127 clients and comprehensive criminal case support to 103 clients, with 16 clients receiving both services. Final protection orders were granted for 86% of clients who chose to complete the process. Additionally, there were convictions in nine LvA-supported cases including six cases of statutory rape and other charges including rape, kidnapping, and assault. The majority of LvA-supported criminal cases are still ongoing. LvA continues to work closely with the local police and court officials to provide support and ensure accountability in GBV cases.

Attending to our clients' emotional, mental, and psychological needs as well, LvA therapists provided 596 individual therapy sessions to 144 clients. Many of LvA’s therapy clients appeared to have experienced a shift as they were able to internalise a sense of security and develop intra- and inter-personal trust and hope. LvA’s therapists note that it has been poignant to witness clients’ courage, vulnerability and openness to re-imagining new possibilities. 

LvA's community engagement team also made tremendous strides in raising awareness about GBV within the community and educating community members on their rights, legal remedies and the available support services provided by LvA. Through various outreach activities, LvA educated over 15,000 community members and facilitated workshops for 434 individuals, primarily women and girls. LvA's community action groups also planned and executed several events, reaching over 3,000 community members.  

Our work would not be possible without the generous support of people like you - supporting LvA's work from all over the world! We are so grateful for your support and ongoing commitment to ending GBV. We look forward to growing from strength to strength in 2019. 

LvA Team and the Community Action Group
LvA Team and the Community Action Group
Facilitating discussion during community dialogue
Facilitating discussion during community dialogue

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In 2015, Anna* was raped by a local taxi driver, Jakes*, who’d offered her a lift home. After dropping off the other passengers, he took her to a deserted area in Diepsloot despite her protests. When she refused to have sex with him, he began to beat her severely and threatened to kill her. She tried to escape, but he chased her down and raped her at knifepoint. Although Anna immediately opened a criminal case, Jakes was not arrested for two years. As a result, Anna had very little faith in the criminal justice system but persevered nonetheless.

After Jakes was finally arrested in 2017, Anna was referred to LvA for support. During her initial consultation with LvA’s senior staff attorney, Rethabile, Anna was extremely emotional and unable to speak about what happened. Before any legal support could take place, Anna was referred to an LvA therapist, Noluthando, who was able to help Anna work through the trauma she had endured, learn the skills necessary to manage her emotions, and address her fears of testifying at court. Over the next seven months, Rethabile provided Anna with ongoing support in her criminal case, including regular engagement with the investigating officer and the prosecutor. Over time, Anna grew increasingly confident and indicated that she was ready to face the man who raped her in court without feeling intimidated. Over the course of two days, Anna bravely told her story to the Magistrate. In January 2018, more than 3 years later, Jakes was convicted of rape, kidnapping, and assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

In a country where only 8.6% of reported rape cases result in a conviction, this outcome is truly a testament to Anna’s strength and determination in her pursuit of justice in the midst of a broken justice system. Anna said “I could not have done without LvA’s support and just wish that there were more LvA’s for women who are afraid to come forward.” Thankfully, with LvA’s integrated legal and psychosocial support, Anna did not have to walk this road alone.

*Names have been changed to protect client’s identity.

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Lawyers Against Abuse

Location: Braamfontein, Gauteng - South Africa
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Twitter: @LvA_SouthAfrica
Project Leader:
Lindsay Henson
Diepsloot, Johannesburg, Gauteng South Africa
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