Archive for August, 2011

Having recently returned from two incredible months in Johannesburg, it is obviously impossible for me to document all of the wonderful experiences that I had. I can however, give you a little insight into the work that I was involved in and some of the dilemmas that are faced by civil society. I was lucky enough to intern with a partner organisation of the Edinburgh University, an NGO called Sonke Gender Justice Network (Sonke). Sonke is centred on achieving human rights and gender equality and their underlying philosophy is the need to involve men and boys in order to create a more gender equitable society and encouraging men to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The project that I was involved in was, ‘Improving Survivor’s of Gender-Based Violence Access to Justice and Mobilising Men and Boys in the Prevention of Gender-Based Violence and HIV within Limpopo’. In January of this year (2011), Sonke partnered with the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP), which is situated within a beautiful rural town in Limpopo (Northern Province) in South Africa), Thohoyandou. The ‘Access to Justice’ programme is found within TVEP, whereby it assists victims of sexual violence in reporting their case, provides them with medical examination, medication and counselling, all of which take place within the trauma centres which are found throughout Thohoyandou. A Support Officer monitors each victim and the management team ensure that the victim is adequately prepared for the trial. Furthermore the partnership seeks to incorporate men and boys in the struggle for gender equality within the work of TVEP, which is of particular significance given TVEP is predominantly a women’s rights based organisation. I was lucky enough to take a trip to Thohoyandou with the project coordinator, Justice…yes, Justice from Sonke Gender Justice, working on the Access to Justice programme…I could go on!

It was great to visit the TVEP office and understand a little more about the work that they do. Whilst the ‘Access to Justice’ project aims to help survivors of gender-based violence convict their perpetrators and getting the justice they deserve, my time at the TVEP office gave me an insight into the obstacles that women face in accessing this justice. Many of the problems essentially lie with the police failing to gather sufficient evidence for the trial. For example, the police do not engage with sniffer dogs after the case of sexual violence has been reported. With many perpetrators escaping on foot, there have been calls for the police to use sniffer dogs that are trained in tracking semen. But for some unknown reason, these dogs are not being used. Another significant obstacle that women face is with regards to the use of DNA testing. A victim of rape is subjected to hours of examination, which usually takes place immediately after the rape, where samples are taken for DNA testing. It is a very thorough examination, which you can only imagine is the last thing the victim wants to be subjected to. However, what has been the case, not only in Thohoyandou, but also throughout the country is that these DNA samples are not being used. A newspaper report highlighted that in Johannesburg, thousands of DNA samples are being left uncollected at hospitals due to the negligence of the police not collecting them. Given the great importance in using DNA to support the evidence in a rape case and increasing the likelihood that the rapist will be convicted, it therefore raises alarms that DNA is not being used to its full potential. As a result, many guilty rapists are walking free. Reading through several rape cases in Thohoyandou, it is easy to identify the areas where the victim was being raped again, only this time by the criminal justice system.

Advocating for women’s access to justice, I can understand the difficulties and frustrations felt by TVEP. Simple procedures that could easily help a woman convict her rapist are not being engaged with. Resultantly, many women have lost faith in the criminal justice system and have decided not to report the rape. However, whilst these frustrations are justified, it is important that this is examined within the bigger picture.

Sexual violence within correctional centres in South Africa is a major issue for both civil society and the government. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of a booklet to end sexual violence within correctional centres. It was a truly insightful day and opened my eyes to the true extent of the problem. I knew it occurred, but given the nature of a prison environment, and the little that is known about what happens behind closed doors, there certainly is a tendency to simply ignore such issues. For those men who are in prison for crimes such as rape and who are now being raped themselves, I am sure many may think that the men are finally getting a taste of their own medicine. However, the reality is that inmates have rights and if these are being violated, necessary steps need to be taken to overcome this. Correctional centres are supposed to be the spaces in which transformation takes place and where offenders re-enter society as changed men, however when there is a gross violation of human rights, it is necessary to ask, what kind of transformation will actually take place?

My time in South Africa really forced me to open my eyes to the challenges that are faced by civil society and the need to think holistically. How does one ensure that women get the necessary access to justice whilst also ensuring that the rights of men are upheld and they can serve their time without fear of being the victim of sexual abuse? You cannot simply solve one problem without considering the wider implications. Even by overcoming the obstacles that are in the way of survivors of sexual violence accessing justice, the challenge continues with the severity of sexual abuse that men will face in prison. Whilst it is perhaps difficult for TVEP, a women’s rights based organisation, to begin addressing sexual violence amongst male prison members, it really is inspiring to see organisations like Sonke and CSVR working in prisons to try and combat the issues of sexual violence and HIV/AIDS.

Amy Mitchell, MSc student in Africa and International Development


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