Rampant abuse going unnoticed

A survivor of two abusive relationships who has now reclaimed her life Ramalepa frequently punctuated her harrowing life story with the words, “I am beautiful.” Last week, as the verdict in the Zuma trial was handed down she sent the following SMS to a colleague: “we have a lot of education to do.” As several speakers commented at the “365 days of action to end gender violence conference” from 3-5 May, Ramalepa’s story of verbal, emotional, financial and psychological abuse probably never entered the official statistics, nor did it ever go to court. Yet it is the untold story of all too many women; the story that even if it went to court might not have resulted in a successful conviction; the story of the human rights abuses that go on every day ten years after our new constitution came into force with a wholly inadequate repose from the formal systems. The Kopanong Declaration agreed by the 260 delegates representing all spheres of government and a broad cross section of South African society proposes to extend the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence from 25 November (International Day of No Violence against Women) to 10 December (Human Rights Day) to a year long campaign. In setting out key strategic objectives, it breaks with past trends in putting public education and awareness at the heart of the agenda, and seeking to extend the reach of the campaign through schools, local government, traditional authorities, men’s organisations and groups not traditionally involved in the campaign. As Deputy Minister of Provincial and Local Government Nomatyala Hangana who leads the Sixteen Day campaign in government put it: “It is time to get out of our comfort zone and talk to the people we don’t usually talk to.” With regard to the response mechanisms currently in place, the Declaration recognises the short comings of the present legislative framework. While the Domestic Violence Act, which allows women in abusive relationships to obtain “peace orders” for their protection is a far reaching law, few women know about or make use of its provisions, and it is under resourced. The Sexual Offences Bill, that tightens the definition of “consent” and restricts the extent to which various types of evidence, including ones sexual past, can be brought in as evidence has still not been passed despite being in the making for ten years. The latest version of the bill has various flaws, including the fact that a woman must first report a case of sexual assault to the police before seeking Post Exposure Prophylaxis, the combination of anti retroviral drugs that can help to prevent HIV infection if taken immediately after the assault. The Declaration pledges to ensure the bill is passed by the 2006 Sixteen Day campaign. NGOs are demanding that there be a further round of public comment before it is finalised. A major concern in cases relating to gender violence, particularly those relating to date rape in which it is notoriously difficult to prove such cases in court is police bungling in the investigations (some of this surfaced in the Zuma case) and low conviction rates (7% in the regular courts). Conviction rates are much higher in the specialised sexual offenses courts, but these currently only address about ten percent of the 55 000 rape cases reported each year. The Kopanong Declaration commits government and NGO partners to coming up with a strategy for dealing with sexual offenses courts that includes rolling out more of these specialised facilities, but also ensuring that the entire criminal justice system is geared to deal more effectively with such cases. The Declaration recognises that every survivor of gender violence should have access to immediate and comprehensive treatment, care and support. Such services are currently best provided by the Thutuzela one stop services, but they only service 5% of the need. Again, the challenge is to ensure that all the existing facilities, especially health facilities, are equipped to provide counseling and medical care (PEP, treatment for STD’s and the possibility of pregnancy) as well as able to gather the necessary forensic evidence. A critical provision of the Declaration is to establish over the next six months baseline data on gender violence, especially domestic violence that is currently hidden within such police statistics as “indecent assault.” Overarching targets will then be set for reducing levels of violence, increasing conviction rates, and providing dignified, easily accessible services to survivors of gender violence. Such targets, the conference agreed in its closing session that included a symbolic recommitment to the provisions for gender equality in the Constitution, are the bare minimum requirements for “making the constitution work for women and children” over the next decade. l Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links, which co- convened the 365 day conference with the National Prosecuting Authority, Department of Provincial and Local Government and UN agencies. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

May 2006
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