Let’s get the law to work

Date: January 1, 1970
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Law enforcement and judicial agencies are making a mockery of the progressive legislation we have to protect women as the spate of women dying at the hands of their intimate partners reaches epidemic proportions.

Law enforcement and judicial agencies are making a mockery of the progressive legislation we have to protect women as the spate of women dying at the hands of their intimate partners reaches epidemic proportions. 

A recent study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that a woman dies at the hands of an intimate partner – i.e. her husband, ex-husband, lover, boyfriend, etc – every four days.

The young woman from Athlone in Cape Town who lost her life after her former husband tracked her down and killed her in cold blood in June of this year, is a case in point.  She was in possession of a protection order at the time of her death, and reports maintained that local police were aware of her concern about her ex-husband’s harassment of her. The very brutal and public nature of the murder propelled it into the headlines, but many similar incidents go unreported or under reported in the media. The point is, the law failed to protect her and so many other women in similar situations.

South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act (DVA) has been hailed as one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in the world, yet very little has changed for women at grassroots level.  The fact is that there are a number of areas where the implementation of the act has come unstuck. 

The lack of adequate resource allocation and training of relevant role players are among the key reasons why implementation has not been successful to date. 

The number of persons applying for protection orders has risen sharply, given that the new Act broadens the definition of domestic violence, as well as what constitutes a domestic relationship.  The current system is unable to cope with this demand. 

The effects of long queues to make applications, non availability of magistrates after hours, cases poorly handled by the prosecutors, and the lack of support services to assist the women increases secondary trauma of women facing abuse and harassment. 

The Gender Advocacy Programme (GAP) conducted research in 2001 around the impact of the DVA on the lives of women.  It found, among others, that women were disillusioned by the protection order since often it made very little difference, as the threats or abuse they faced remained.

An area of particular concern is the attitude by police and judicial officials that domestic violence is a private matter that does not warrant public intervention.  So many women have been refused assistance by police officers who do not understand their roles and responsibilities in relation to the Act. 

A study conducted by GAP in Saldanha Bay in July of this year, revealed women’s frustration with the police and their inability to provide relief to them in violent situations.  The police are often the woman’s first point of contact when looking for assistance.  In the Saldanha Bay study, women said that if they were refused assistance they often felt even more helpless and the idea that they had no other alternative was reinforced.

Since the implementation of the DVA, most police officers have received very little or no training on the legislation, hence they are unaware of their roles and responsibilities. 

More disturbing though is that in my experience of counseling abused women, I have found that a significant number of police officers themselves are perpetrators of domestic violence.  Often these officers’ partners receive no assistance as the perpetrator is protected by his colleagues in the very system that is meant to offer women help.  

Domestic violence is also not seen as a crime that should be policed and is often regarded as a soft crime.  A far more rapid response is given to a robbery.   Domestic violence can be a murder in progress and often it is not thought of in this way by the law enforcers.

What is clear is that passing legislation alone does not guarantee women’s rights.  The legislation needs to be backed by a solid plan for implementation and a realistic budget to make it happen.  Currently, the budget for implementing the DVA is expected to come from the already over extended budgets of the Departments of Safety and Security and Justice.

By failing to work out such a solid plan, government will simply be raising women’s expectations of protection and further make them vulnerable to abuse by a system that is not geared to assisting.  With so many women dying at the hands of their intimate partners, can we really afford not to take this matter seriously?

Faeza Khan is the Domestic Violence Project Co-ordinator at the Gender Advocacy Programme based in Cape Town.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information




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