As the rest of the world continues to battle with Covid-19, South Africa faces an added burden of the unrelenting scourge of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). With news headlines conveying the daily horrors faced by women, South Africans finally woke up to the reality that more needs to be done to protect the lives of women and children.
Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the introduction of three GBV Bills, namely: the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill; the Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill; and the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill for Parliamentary approval. These Bills are aimed at introducing stiffer sentencing for perpetrators and improve the responsiveness of the justice system to the needs of GBV victims. Forthcoming is Parliament’s commitment to expedite the processing and adoption of these Bills with an announcement of R1.6 billion towards the Programming Committee. Legislation to protect women and children seems to be moving with a new founded urgency.
One of the demands of the women and organisations that gathered for the #SandtonShutdown protest in September 2019 was for the national register for sex offenders to be made public. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill makes provision for the names of persons on the National Registry for Sex Offenders to be publicly available.
However, the publication of the list does not account for perpetrators who have not been convicted, who are as much of a danger to women and children. It remains unclear which public platforms will be used for the publication of these names and whether issues of accessibility are considered. There needs to be an unpacking of what public means and whether the names will be available upon request in a manner similar to the PAIA process or published in the media or government websites.
The Criminal and Related Matters Amendment Bill seeks to, among others, tighten the granting of bail to perpetrators of GBV and expands the offences in which sentences may be imposed. Some of the challenges that GBV victims have had to deal with include perpetrators being easily granted bail, something that often results in victim harassment. There are instances where perpetrators have, while on bail, literally killed the victims who reported them to the police. Though longer sentences may not be the answer, they may increase society’s confidence in the justice system.
On the other hand, the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill seeks to extend the definition of domestic violence to include those engagements that are classified as customary relationships, intimate, romantic and sexual relationships, regardless of their duration. This Bill emphasises the role of citizens in ensuring that children, the elderly and people living with disabilities are protected. This will be implemented through introducing a provision that allows for a person to be fined or even face imprisonment if he or she has knowledge, reasonable suspicion that an act of violence has been committed against one of the classified persons and fails to report this to a social worker or a police officer. This, therefore, calls for the strengthening of the witness protection programmes to avoid people being targeted as izimpimpi (police informants).
Our police system has been cited as ill-equipped to deal with cases of GBV. Most police officers are not trained to deal with cases of GBV and victims fear going to police stations to report such crimes for fear of humiliation and victimisation. Handling of GBV cases should be made part of the training that police officers undergo. It has long been observed that police stations should have designated private rooms for victims of GBV in order to spare them from recounting their horrors in the glare of the public.
A limitation to the abovementioned Domestic Amendment Bill’s clause is the exclusion of women from the three protected groups (children, elderly and people with disabilities).This is rather concerning given the high statistics that point to the domestic violence experienced by women, which certainly begs for social intervention in combatting violence against women within the home.
Emerging consensus is that dealing with GBV requires a multi-pronged approach that includes effective legislation, competent and properly equipped and trained law enforcement agencies, as well as social interventions aimed primarily at educating young boys and men to treat women as equals. South Africans also need to have an honest conversation about the relevance of many cultures in our society, especially where these promote patriarchy, with a view to dismantling them and their teachings. Men and boys are key to driving that cultural change as well as the understanding of the underlying ramifications of the contemporary socio-economic order that inevitably provides for the emergence of women as independent beings, free to make their own choices.
Written by Neo Tsotetsi