As part of marking the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, which runs from 25 November to 10 December each year, People Opposing Women Abuse (POWA) will hold a march in Pretoria on Friday, 27 November.

The march seeks to highlight and address how various actors within the criminal justice system – from the police, investigating officers, magistrates, prosecutors, judges and others – often fail gender-based violence (GBV) survivors so compromising the justice and security they deserve and putting their lives at risk.

During the march, Mary Makgaba, the CEO of POWA, will hand over memorandums to the National Director of Public Prosecutions, Advocate Shamila Batohi and South African Minister of Police, Minister Bheki Cele. POWA is a feminist organisation that promotes and protects the rights of women and girls. Its work includes supporting GBV survivors who experience secondary victimisation from the criminal justice system.  

The memorandums feature a list of demands, which include, but are not limited to, the need for better policing, the necessity of properly monitoring and evaluating the implementation and effectiveness of legislation to address gender-based violence and femicide (GBVF) and the importance of never giving bail or parole to perpetrators arrested for GBVF crimes. The memorandum also calls for the speedy finalisation of prosecution cases on GBV, addressing the backlog of cases of GBV and giving them priority on the court roll, proper conduct and professional assistance of GBV survivors by law enforcement agencies and treating survivors with dignity and respect when they enter the criminal justice system from the SAPS to the courts. Additionally, the memorandum also calls for the three bills to address GBVF, recently announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa, to be signed into law immediately.

“GBVF is a national emergency,” says Makgaba. “A woman is killed every three hours in South Africa and our femicide rate is five times the global average. Effective, practical and ongoing measures need to be taken so GBV survivors stop being failed by our criminal justice system.”

In line with COVID-19 regulations, 500 participants are expected to take part in the march. They include POWA staff, board members and donors, GBV survivors, members of the public and the media as well as stakeholders from clinics, victim empowerment centres, women and children organisations and other institutions POWA works with.

The march will start at 10:00am to the National Prosecuting Authority to hand over the memorandum to Advocate Shamila Batohi and Minister Bheki Cele.

POWA social workers and social auxiliary workers regularly assist GBV survivors facing secondary victimisation from our police and courts. Across the country, the cases of GBV survivors are not treated with the urgency and due diligence they require. Often police take too long to investigate GBVF cases and arrest perpetrators.  

Nomkhosi Xulu, a social worker at POWA’s Vosloorus office, says many survivors don’t get adequate assistance when reporting GBV cases at most police stations. “In some domestic violence cases, police tell the survivor that it is a family matter and that she should go home and sort it out with her partner,” explains Xulu. “In cases where a protection order has been issued, police officers often tell a survivor to submit the protection order to her abuser. However, this goes against South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act which states that it’s the responsibility of police officers to hand over protection orders and summons for court appearance to perpetrators. In cases of grievous bodily harm or rape, police should arrest perpetrators but often don’t.”

Xulu adds that in some cases police officers don’t take working on GBV cases seriously. The reason could be that they could possibly be GBV perpetrators themselves. “A solution could be that police officers be continuously vetted and trained on GBV related-matters and if found with a record of perpetuating GBV, they shouldn’t be allowed to assist survivors,” says Xulu. “How can one lead the fight against GBV if you’re a perpetrator of it yourself?” There also needs to be greater punishment for law enforcement officials who violate regulations for their own personal benefits, for example, by accepting bribes from perpetrators.”

While the South African Constitution states that perpetrators have the right to bail and parole, POWA feels that this should be reconsidered, taking into account the extremely high rate of gender-based violence in South Africa.

Nompumelelo Mbatha, a social worker at POWA’s Soweto branch, explains that when a case is opened, there will be lack of progress on it as survivors generally don’t get feedback from the investigating officer. “The majority of domestic violence and femicide cases aren’t prosecuted even when families give police all the information,” she says. “In some cases, investigating officers don’t even inform a survivor that a perpetrator has been let out on bail or parole. When bail is granted, there’s no concern on the case and safety of the survivor even when there was attempted murder.”

Ensuring perpetrators of GBVF get no bail and no parole and promoting the utmost efficiency in every aspect of our criminal justice system is critical to addressing issues of violence against women. POWA’s march on 27 November is about calling for our criminal justice system to work with greater commitment, compassion  and professionalism when dealing with cases of GBVF – but it’s also about showing that we can all play our part in addressing the GBVF scourge in our country.