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Durban - A plan by the government to make it an offence for abused women to withdraw charges against their attackers could backfire, NGOs have warned.
It would do nothing to help the plight of abused women, but could result in fewer women coming forward to lay charges, they say.
Speaking at the launch of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children campaign in Kimberley, the Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, reportedly announced the plan.
She also urged Justice and Constitutional Development Minister Jeff Radebe to re-establish sexual offences courts speedily.
Radebe’s spokesman, Mthunzi Mhaga, said the department was reviewing the Domestic Violence Act, which allows abused women to withdraw charges against their perpetrators. But he said he could not comment on Xingwana’s statement.
Cookie Edwards, of the KwaZulu-Natal Network on Violence Against Women, is upset at the plan, saying the government should instead look at solutions to help abused women, such as providing shelters, housing or grants.
“How would this possible change to the act help abused women, who in most cases live with and are financially dependent on their abuser?” she said. “There aren’t enough shelters for the women to turn to
Anthony Collins, a board member with the Advice Desk for Abused Women, said the argument on the change was a complicated one.
“On the one hand it could mean more convictions; on the other hand, the danger is that people are even more reluctant to lodge charges,” he said.
Victims were often reluctant to leave their abuser and continue with the charges.
“Her prime intention by laying the charge is to try and get the perpetrator to stop. She doesn’t necessarily want a conviction. The perpetrator would promise to make amends and she would withdraw the charges,” said Collins, who is a University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher on violence.
“By taking away the right to withdraw, negotiating with the perpetrator would fall away.”
Collins agreed with Edwards, saying it was better to look at resources needed by abused women rather than focusing on a conviction.
Edwards said the specialised courts allowed for correct evidence to be gathered and proper processes to be followed, which would enable the justice system to work faster. “People want a safe place to come to, to report abuse, and that’s what we’re creating with these courts,” she said.
Collins said it was a fantastic idea to re-establish these courts. “These are trained officials who would be sensitive to victims’ needs,” he said.
The justice department expects to complete and apply its revised sexual offences court model by the end of the financial year.
“Parliament has recently raised a number of concerns regarding the decline of specialised sexual offences courts, which were triggered to a large extent by media reports on the gruesome sexual crimes perpetrated against women and children, including black lesbians,” said Mhaga.
He added that the international community had also voiced discontent about the “non-operation” of these courts.
“The Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women couldn’t comprehend this action since these courts have been recognised as an international best practice in addressing the scourge of sexual violence, particularly in SA,” said Mhaga.
The courts, he said, started under-performing in 2005 and offences were sent to regional courts.
In response to the criticism, Radebe established a ministerial task team to investigate the reintroduction of the courts. In August, the team finalised two research studies which confirmed the need for the courts to be re-established.
Mhaga said there were 52 main sexual offences courts in KwaZulu-Natal that heard just over 11 000 sexual offences cases in the 2010/11 financial year. The number, however, dropped to 9 465 in the 2011/12 financial year.
Radebe had said 64 500 sexual offences were reported to the police this year.