Restorative justice transforming families

Date: January 1, 1970
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An attractive, smartly dressed couple, Anne and Phillip Govender, sit waiting in the reception area waiting to be called into a mediation office. Their anxiety and nervousness is clear from their body language. However, a well-trained and articulate community based mediator from Khulisa’s Justice and Restoration Programme (JARP) soon addresses their anxiety and questions about restorative justice.

The couple’s domestic violence case had just appeared the very same morning at Phoenix court. The magistrate had asked the couple if they would like mediation and they both seized the opportunity, especially the wife/ victim, Anne. Khulisa is a section (21) non-profit organisation established in 1997 to tackle crime holistically, working at all levels of the crime cycle, including crime prevention. Khulisa helps families and communities support victims (like Anne) who need healing and offenders (like Phillip) who want to make amends.
Restorative justice is concerned with healing victims’ wounds, restoring offenders to law-abiding lives, and repairing harm done to interpersonal relationships and the community. It seeks to involve all stakeholders and provide opportunities for those most affected by the crime to be directly involved in the process of responding to the harm caused. The safety, support, and needs of victims are the starting points for any restorative justice process.
There are various reasons as to why clients select mediation as opposed to trial, arresting or laying a charge against the offender. Like many other domestic violence victims that opt for mediation, Anne wanted help for her marriage most importantly. She did not want to punish Phillip, so she did not view having him arrested as favourable option, and anyway her two daughters loved their father dearly. She was tired of so many things: the abuse, the abuse affecting her children, which she saw in her children’s behaviour patterns and most importantly not being (sufficiently) listened to by South Africa’s retributive criminal justice system where punishment is meted out.
Though the Govenders would have been able to afford mediation services, Khulisa does not charge any clients for its services. Phoenix began as a lower to middle income housing scheme and currently caters for all income level families. This means that there are still significant numbers of people who are unable to afford to pay for mediation services. Ensuring financial considerations do not hinder access in any way is an important part of making the programme as available as possible.
Since their first mediation in April 2008, both Anne and Phillip Govender have given public and private testimonies about the help they received from JARP. Their assistance in spreading the word about JARP is appreciated, helping to raise awareness and much-needed funds for the service. The couple is not just a statistic; they are part of the JARP family, wanting to see it reach more people like themselves who want out of their domestic violence through restoration and healing.  
Qualified and experienced restorative justice practitioners, two of which qualified and trained initially in Canada, trained and mentored JARP mediators. JARP mediators have mediated no less than a 100 restorative justice cases thus far which is evident in their rapid development as community mediators, although not possessing (law) degrees or any other equivalent qualification. Most of the mediators grew up in Phoenix and all reside in the Phoenix community, meaning they have keen insight into their own community’s culture of violence and gender issues.
Many have even experienced domestic violence themselves, and have risen above their own situation and made a change in their lives. Many mediators have extensive counselling training. Unlike many Phoenix residents who take the cultural conflict dynamics for granted, JARP mediators are aware of their surroundings and are thus better able to assist clients from the community. The mediator that mediated Anne and Phillip’s case had previously mediated no less than fifty domestic violence cases, so her experience was an asset.  
There are many critics of restorative justice mediation, particularly when used for domestic violence matters. Some critics believe that abusers could become more aggressive once they reach their home, their common living space. They might feel their aggression is exposed after mediation and feel more vulnerable. Some feel that once abuse takes place, the respect is lost forever and no counselling or mediation is going to return the once shared respect to the couple.
Some believe that mediation can only be conducted in minor a case (which is JARP’s criteria, that we mediate minor cases) and where there has been a long history of abuse, mediation is not suitable, perhaps too soft an option. JARP has however mediated cases with both a long history and short term of domestic violence. In total, our success rate has been no less than 95% including domestic violence cases. 
Mediation proved to be successful for the Govenders and they are currently leading a better family life after mediation. Part of Anne’ self-realisation during mediation included recognising how her own behaviours contributed to conflict within the marriage. Phillip admitted to having an anger management problem. Mediation gave the couple a chance to hear each other out under strict rules of mediation such as confidentiality, one person talk at a time, accountability, mutual respect and a final written agreement is reached (where mediation is successful).
Both attended a communication skills building workshop designed and facilitated by Khulisa and further follow-ups were done with the couple. This was to ensure that if charges were later withdrawn on the adjournment date as advised by JARP, they were done for the right reasons, that the Govenders were able to make a change for the better in their lives and approach conflict differently in future.
This is not to say that JARP can assist everyone. JARP is sometimes unable to assist people for various reasons. On some occasions, clients break rules of mediation, for example becoming violent. Regrettably, restorative justice is unsuitable for some clients.
For the rest it is worth every bit of the effort from the side of the JARP team, as well as the clients. The Govenders benefitted immensely from the restorative justice process. Like the Govenders, many JARP/Khulisa clients, particularly domestic violence cases, feel like a huge weight lifts off their shoulders. They make positive changes in their family life and in their outlook on life, chiefly around conflict management.
Kimendhri Pillay is the Mediation Coordinator and Programme Trainer at Khulisa in Kwazul-Natal, South Africa. This article is part of a series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism.

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