/ 27 April 2022

OPINION| Domestic violence survivors deserve to be free too

An estimated 1.75-million people annually seek healthcare for injuries resulting from physical and sexual violence.
As well as physical violence, domestic abuse can take many different shapes and forms — sexual, emotional, economic or psychological actions or threats of actions — most of which often end up escalating to serious physical aggression, according to experts. (Oupa Nkosi)

Freedom was ushered in 28 years ago, bringing the hope that all who live in South Africa will be protected by the law and all would be able to live their lives free from control of the government or any person. But, despite the progressive laws that have been passed, many South Africans, particularly women, cannot celebrate freedom. 

They are bound by the fear of movement, lack of choice, weak systems of preventive and responsive justice, safety and security in their homes, families and neighbourhoods because of domestic and intimate partner violence.

The latest crime statistics (October to December 2021) released in February of this year showed that 232 of the overall murders were a result of domestic violence. Upon analysis of the statistics it is also clear that more women fall victim to these crimes than men. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Domestic Violence Amendment Act 2021 (Amendment Act) on 28 January this year, which is one of three gender-based violence Bills amended to strengthen the law to enhance the response to and prevention of GBV in the country. But domestic violence was long neglected by the system and treated as a “private matter” to the extent that the foundations of prevention are weak and will not be easily solved by a well-worded and intentioned law without regulations, coordination and monitoring systems. 

Domestic and intimate partner violence is complex because it happens in private spaces and is rooted in familial connections that make choices to leave or report very difficult. This is why it is vital for laws and policies to be supported by duty bearers who are well trained in the law and know how to apply it in a way that adequately responds to the complexities.This type of response is systemic and ensures that people who are experiencing such violence can start to enjoy freedom too. 

Our 2021 research study, exploring the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act (1998) in Cape Town and the Cape Winelands, highlighted common systemic gaps restricting access to justice for those affected by domestic violence. The research focused on police officers, magistrates and clerks and how they understand and implement the law. The barriers to their understanding and how they are implemented are important for what we hope the new legislation will fix. This is largely reliant on the development of regulations. 

As we await the publishing of the regulations for the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, we offer what we hope will be incorporated. In the interest of strengthening the criminal justice and broader sociomedical systemic response to domestic violence, we hope to see regulations include:

  • Building the capacity of domestic violence first responders through training that incorporates a focus on the dynamics unique to domestic violence and the role of the first responder;
  • Increasing access to justice through the use of technology, which is user-friendly and data-free;
  • Detail on the structural and technology developments to realise a centralised electronic repository for domestic violence matters;
  • The nature and extent of the new addition of safety monitoring notices, considering the already constrained and resource-scarce policing environment;
  • The inclusion of mandatory debriefing for all domestic violence first responders to mitigate victim fatigue and burnout; and
  • How the Act will foster cooperation and collaboration at a local level.

We believe that freedom is guaranteed by the existence of laws and their implementation. When it comes to violence prevention and response, we have developed many laws and policies, but with inconsistent implementation. One of the barriers is the lack of formal coordination and collaboration. Mosaic, which works to prevent and reduce abuse and domestic violence, is piloting the Safe Project, a context-specific response to strengthening domestic violence prevention and response at a local level. 

The Safe Project is piloting Safe Platforms in Paarl, Philippi and Mitchells Plain. We have brought together government and civil society partners. Collectively, the Safe Platforms have developed a local response plan for coordinated services and referral pathways to increase justice and strengthen systems.

We look forward to providing evidence-based input when the department of justice publishes the regulations for comment. All who call South Africa home deserve the freedoms of a safe home, safe relationship, and safe community. To realise this, a local, collaborative response is needed.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.