Thu Dec 08 16:19:54 SAST 2016

THE BIG READ: Betrayed by the system

Lillian Artz, Kelly Moult and Christélle Cronjé | 2012-09-04 00:01:43.0
Abuse victim Tina Mbili looks at a photo of her baby daughter Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN

The reports of the savage beating of 21-year-old Tina Mbili, allegedly by her former boyfriend, forces us to stop in our tracks.

As organisations working against gender-based violence, the photographs - which were cautiously published by The Times - are simultaneously disturbing and regrettably familiar.

They are also indicative of a society where the continuing humiliation, intimidation and violation of women is rampant, tolerated and treated as "someone else's problem". It is not.

Violence against women is a problem that is both personal and societal. In a country in which freedom from violence is enshrined in our much celebrated constitution, everyone - not just the state - should be obliged to speak up about it, stand against it and protect those who are vulnerable to it.

This means reporting the abuse and challenging it, even in its most subtle forms.

For the state, it means taking immediate action on these reports and diligently following through with them.

Mbili may have been one of the so-called "lucky ones" to survive this kind of violence. Many do not.

Several years ago, research by the Medical Research Council found that one woman dies every six hours at the hands of her intimate partner in South Africa.

Stop for a second and think about that statistic: four women a day die as a result of domestic violence.

Protection orders, issued in terms of the Domestic Violence Act, are intended to be swift, accessible legal orders that, when breached, result in the immediate arrest of the abuser.

In issuing a protection order, the courts have decided that an act of domestic violence has already taken place, and that future incidents must be prevented by court order.

Yet, while the very purpose of the protection order is to curtail violence, research shows that the reality is much more complex.

One out of every four women who apply for a protection order is threatened with further violence for doing so .

On the other hand, we also found that, in some cases, even partial interaction with the legal system - for example, applying for an order but never finalising it - might assist the victim in separating from the violence or the relationship itself.

How victims of domestic violence "use" the protection order is almost entirely dependent on the level of confidence they have in the criminal justice system to respond to their complaints as well as the extent of the support systems that surround them.

It appears that the justice system failed Mbili.

According to The Times reports, Mbili was assaulted despite having a protection order against her ex-boyfriend and having two criminal cases of domestic violence pending against him.

He was out on bail when the attack occurred.

A report notes that the police were looking for him "in connection with the attempted murder of his 17-month-old daughter", whom he allegedly threw over a gate in July in full view of neighbours.

We are left with several perplexing questions.

What protective measures did the police and courts take to ensure Mbili's safety and security from her first point of contact with them almost five years ago, in 2007?

Under what conditions had the accused been granted bail, besides "no contact"?

Why had the police not immediately arrested the accused after the first breach of the protection order or the breach of bail conditions?

Were the two pending cases as a result of these orders?

Why did the police not respect the decision of the court and make a concerted effort to arrest Mbili's ex-boyfriend for breaching the conditions of the court order?

Why, when we arguably have the most progressive jurisprudence surrounding the duties of the state to protect women from violence, do victims of domestic violence continue to be so vulnerable?

What the criminal justice system needs to understand is that a victim of domestic violence is the best judge of how much danger she is in.

Indeed, the victims of domestic violence are even more at risk when they seek legal protection.

Requesting protection from the system is not an easy thing to do.

There are very real personal and practical risks and costs.

They are dependent on the system to validate their trust.

Mbili is one of the women the system failed.

The tireless efforts by organisations throughout the country to prevent domestic violence often seem futile because of the lax justice system.

Donor and state funding, which supports essential services by non-governmental organisations to victims of gender-based violence, is slowly drying up or being reallocated to other regions or areas of work.

Foundational organisations in the Western Cape such as the Saartjie Baartman Centre and Rape Crisis, which provide critical services to victims of domestic violence and rape, are at risk of closing, yet the state is unable to provide these women with the most basic safety.

Courts across the Western Cape would be crippled if it were not for the services of organisations like Mosaic, which help victims utilise the legal system.

Our laws promise freedom from violence. They also hold the state accountable for this.

It is time for to call on government leaders to observe their legal duty to protect vulnerable groups, and to support organisations that assist the victims of domestic violence.

There are too many women depending on us.

  • Associate Professor Lillian Artz and Dr Kelley Moult are part of the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Cape Town. Christélle Cronjé is the executive director of the Mosaic Training, Service and Healing Centre for Women

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