South Africa

GBV cases need resources and attitude change, say Lawyers against Abuse

GBV cases need resources and attitude change, say Lawyers against Abuse

The attitude of some state actors when dealing with gender-based violence (GBV) cases and a lack of resources in handling these cases are some of the challenges in dealing with the scourge.

This is the view of Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) executive director Lindsay Henson, who heads the non-profit organisation based in Diepsloot, northern Johannesburg.

The organisation, which turns 10 this year, provides legal services and therapy for victims of GBV, including sexual violence, domestic violence and child abuse.

During its 10 years of existence, it has assisted 703 clients to attain protection orders and 496 clients were assisted with individual therapy sessions.

LvA has assisted more than 300 clients with legal support, including attending 250 trial hearings and registering 33 convictions and guilty pleas with its clients.

The organisation also assisted a young girl who was raped in 2019 to be ready to testify about what happened to her.

Henson said the attitudes of some players in the criminal justice system — including police, prosecutors and magistrates — around GBV impacted on the way they do their work.

“Some state actors may believe domestic violence is a family matter that should be resolved within the family. When the victim opens a case of assault, police may send them home,” Henson said.

She said the fight against GBV was also hampered by the lack of resources within the justice system to process the cases.

Henson said there have been reports about delays in processing DNA evidence for rape victims.

She said her organisation worked closely with police and have experienced instances when police do not have access to something as basic as a vehicle. 

“How can they do the jobs they are required to do without the resources?”

The problems did not end there, Henson said. Most cases are postponed, not only for a few weeks but for a few months, and a case will be postponed multiple times.

Victims experienced the trauma of preparing to testify, only for their case to be postponed many times. She said this leads to a high withdrawal rate.

“It is too frustrating. They do not believe they will ever get their day in court.”

Henson said even with great state actors who care about their jobs and provide the best service possible — in some cases using their own resources and working on their days off to obtain witness statements — they are not properly supported.

Their caseloads were too high and they were working with a very difficult subject matter, she said.

“We see high rates of burnout. Those are some of the challenges.”

There should be adequate resourcing by government to fight GBV, she said. It was one thing for the government to enact amendments to GBV legislation, but if there was no adequate resourcing nothing would be achieved.

She said there must be adequate staffing for specialised units to tackle this crime.

There need to be consequences when a victim goes to the police and is turned away, when cases are postponed seven, eight, nine times.
Lindsay Henson, Lawyers against Abuse executive director 

The family violence, child protection and sexual offences (FCS) units were not at all police stations. She said an FCS unit comprises of 12 to 15 police officers responsible for hundreds of cases.

She said it was a great idea on paper to have a specialised sexual offences court, but it did not help if that court was not adequately resourced.

Henson views the work of the organisation as ensuring there is accountability.

“There needs to be accountability. There need to be consequences when a victim goes to the police and is turned away, when cases are postponed seven, eight, nine times.”

Some cases the organisation deals with involve women who opened cases but never hear anything from the police, only to discover the case had been withdrawn.

“There has to be third-party oversight.”

Henson said LvA’s job was to hold the justice system to account.

“Our mission is to strengthen the justice system to respond to these cases and provide victims with legal and social support.”

The organisation provides victims with support to obtain protection orders by accompanying them to police stations and ensuring they are not turned away.

It liaises with investigating officers on the progress of their cases, to ensure cases do not disappear.

It also attends rape trial consultations with prosecutors.

LvA has 11 staff, nine in Diepsloot and two in the newly opened office in Orange Farm.