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.