Holistic approach needed to stamp out Femicide

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The years 2017 and 2018 will probably be remembered as the most challenging years for gender relations in South Africa with several stories of gender-based violence having dominated the news during this period.

The killing of women by their intimate partners cannot be regarded as a new phenomenon in South Africa. However, in recent years, it has reached unprecedented levels as more women are coming forward to report the cases, says Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha.

“We have created more institutions that enable us to better respond to this challenge. This has created a conducive environment for more people to come forward with the hope that something will be done to address the problem,” the Minister said during an interview with SAnews recently.

According to Statics South Africa, the killing of women increased by a massive117% between 2015 and 2017. The number of women who became victims of sexual offences also jumped from 31 665 in 2015/16 to 70 813 in 2016/17, an increase of 53%.

Some of the high profile cases that dominated the news included that of Amanda Tweyi, Thembisile Yende, Zolile Khumalo, Karabo Mokoena and Sheila Mosidi Kopanye, who were all reportedly killed by their intimate partners.

These cases sparked a nationwide condemnation and social media backlash with people coming up with hashtags such as #MenAreTrash.

This was followed by campaigns such as the #100MenMarch, #NotInMyName and #TheTotalShutdown - during which government and civil society groups raised their concerns over the escalating cases of gender-based violence.

Masutha insists that there is no single answer to the question of why men abuse and kill women and points to some of the common elements that are usually present in abusive relationships.

“It usually doesn’t happen as a once-off incident. There is usually a build- up that ultimately leads to the worst case scenario which is usually Femicide or rape or a combination. This is why we need to change all these gender-based relations at a social level,” says Masutha.  

He says the criminal justice cluster has already identified the need to embark on research that may shed more light with regards to the underlying drivers of the abuse.

Masutha insists that the control of use of drugs and alcohol - which affects the sense of judgment and control of emotions - would be another critical intervention that the country would need to try out.

Alcohol abuse is often at the heart of many contact crimes which include murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, assault resulting in grievous bodily harm, common assault, and robbery. Around 70% of domestic violence is estimated to be associated with alcohol.

Masutha acknowledges that until now, government has put more emphasis on secondary prevention measures which address Femicide and abuse of women after it has happened rather than on prevention measures.

However, there have been various approaches that focus on the victims.

For example, the Department of Social Development decided to roll out Gender-Based Violence Command Centres from 2014. The international award-winning centres provide telephonic support and counselling support to victims of gender-based violence.

The SAPS’ Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units also focuses on victim support while the NPA is running the Ndabezitha Project that seeks to train traditional leaders, prosecutors and court clerks on how to deal with cases of domestic violence in rural communities.

The Department of Justice itself has special Sexual Offences Courts which were reintroduced in 2013 to provide specialised support services to victims of sexual offences and decrease turnaround times for finalisation of sexual offences cases. The department has set a target of increasing these courts from the current number to 110.

The department has also put in place Thuthuzela Care Centres which are situated in hospitals due to their nurturing environment.

These 55 “comfort one-stop centres”, situated across the country’s public hospitals also provide victims with a holistic service that links to sexual offences courts. These are staffed by skilled prosecutors, doctors, social workers, magistrates, NGOs and police.

But these facilities are not without challenges and are sometimes unable to operate at their full potential. The lack of the required infrastructure and staff shortages are some of the challenges that have been brought about by budget austerity measures introduced across government.

“From where I am sitting - yes we can do much more to protect the women of South Africa from a preventative point of view. For example, we can do more in the regulation of places of entertainment that sell alcohol in terms of their location and operating hours,” Masutha says.

But the good news, says Masutha, is that the department has seen an improved conviction rate in sexual offences which currently stands at 72%. At special Sexual Offences Courts, the department has registered just over 74% convictions during the 2016/2017 reporting period.

In the same period, the general courts finalised more than 6 600 sexual offences cases with 4 780 convictions.

During the first quarter of the 2018/2019 financial year, 28 cases were finalised with 27 convictions obtained.

Masutha believes that these statistics are an indication that there is something right the department is doing.

“To us, this indicates that there are efficiencies, especially when one considers the nature of these crimes and the complexity in achieving a successful prosecution,” he says.

However, much more cases would succeed if it were not for victims cancelling protection orders and dropping the cases.

The department has recorded a high number of cancellation of protection orders which are usually issued by a magistrate’s courts to stop any person from committing any act of domestic violence against another person with whom he or she has a domestic relationship.

Masutha says there are various factors that lead to the cancellation of protection orders.

Some of these factors include economic dependency, where sometimes the perpetrator also happens to be the sole breadwinner.

“Often you find perpetrators abuse this economic power position. In such cases what the court can order through a protection order is for the victims to stay in the house while the perpetrator is removed from the house.

“If the perpetrator has a legal duty to the victim and the court can issue a maintenance order - especially when there are children involved - that will ensure that they continue to enjoy support without the perpetrator taking advantage and abusing them in the house.”

The department is pinning its hope on the impending review of the Criminal Procedure Act, which among other things, prescribes the period within which the State can prosecute persons for allegations of particular categories of crime.

Through the review, the department intends to abolish the prescribed period of 20 years to prosecute sexual offence cases, Femicide and all forms of gender-based violence.

The review also intends to introduce harsher sentences for offences relating to domestic violence and Femicide – a move that the minister hopes will make the perpetrators think twice before committing these crimes.

But Masutha says for South Africa to break the vicious cycle of gender-based violence, a lot more still needs to be done in terms of changing the mind-set of South African men.

He identifies several areas that can be targeted for behavioural change interventions such as the public transport environment, schools and institutions of higher learning and training as well as workplaces. 

“This is where tendencies develop. We need to generally talk and have campaigns that will remind everybody that this is a societal challenge that confronts all of us.

“We need to remind our men that they have sisters, daughters, wives, girlfriends, aunts and relatives that are women who might be victims. Once you talk to people in the manner that is closer to home -something is bound to ring a bell.”

In this regard, the ministry has embarked on an initiative which saw it partnering with other government departments, NGOs and reformed offenders to forge dialogue with the aim of developing a prevention strategy. 

“These people come from communities where these problems happen and are prevalent. It therefore makes it important that we are able to capture them there,” the minister says.

He maintains that it is partnerships that government has with the civil society and advocacy groups that need to be improved in order to lessen duplication and gaps.

“A more holistic and integrated action plan will also expand the demographical attention to cover non-urban centres - where the plight is usually under-reported.

“Government has started this from its side with the ongoing integrated justice system review process which is looking into the value chain of the justice system.”

Masutha says the review is a multi-department effort not only meant for prevention but also to increase the probability of successful investigations, prosecution, punishment and ultimately the rehabilitation of offenders and their restoration back into society. –SAnews.gov.za