The Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery, officially opened a Sexual Offences Court in Bredasdorp on Friday. This small rural town bears the brunt of many social ills, among them, gender-based and sexual violence. It was thrust into the international spotlight in 2013 when 17-year-old Anene Booysen was found brutally raped and murdered. The teenager had been gang-raped and her abdomen slit open, before being discarded on a construction site.

“Gender-based violence is on the increase and the community of Bredasdorp has been suffering over these past few years. The government does not disregard the cries of victims or turn a blind eye on gender-based violence, but has worked hard to make this initiative a success,” said Muammer Nicholls, Senior Administration Officer at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development in a press release. “It will serve as a deterrent and criminals will be dealt with speedily in our court system.”

A total of 94 Sexual Offences Courts have been established throughout the country and a further 10 regional courts will be upgraded by the end of March 2020. In accordance with the Judicial Matters Second Amendment Act, these courts have specific facilities and measures in place to render services that will better protect complainants, enhance the quality of evidence given in sexual offence cases and increase the success of prosecutions, as well as minimising secondary trauma for complainants.

At the opening of the Bredasdorp Sexual Offences Court, Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, John Jeffery pointed out that South Africa had one of the highest rates of crimes against women and children in the world. “Roughly every three hours, a woman is murdered in this country, and one in five women have been the victims of gender-based violence. We cannot bring these women and children back, but we can ensure that there is justice for them and for their families.”

Jeffery added that approximately 2 700 women and 1 000 children were murdered in South Africa in 2018, mostly by people they knew. In many communities, including Bredasdorp, violent assault by a partner is considered the norm, largely due to alcohol abuse and poverty.“We are painfully aware of some women’s financial dependency on husbands, fathers, partners and family members, which increases their vulnerability to living with domestic violence, rape, incest, abuse and murder,” he said.

“That is why many victims are unwilling to take action against their abusers and why even those who have laid charges often withdraw them before they get to court. There are also instances where a woman or child has been so broken down physically, emotionally and psychologically that they feel helpless and don’t know where to find help. They often remain in a relationship out of fear or in the hope that their abuser’s behaviour might change, but that only exposes them to more dangerous consequences and results in many attackers going unpunished.”

The Sexual Offences Courts differ from other courts in that victims are kept separate from their perpetrators and proceedings are normally managed by a court intermediary. In order to avoid the onset of secondary trauma, victims never have to face their perpetrators. They have separate waiting rooms, with court prep officers who will assist them and explain the whole process, providing a safe environment.

The Sexual Offences Courts will also make use of in-camera testifying services for children, persons with mental disabilities, and all traumatised victims, irrespective of age. These measures are aimed at preventing victims from coming into direct contact with accused perpetrators, as this often induces further trauma and affects the ability of the victim to become a strong witness in the court process.

Nicholls is confident that the introduction of Sexual Offences Courts throughout South Africa, with trained magistrates and prosecutors who have the necessary skills to take care of the victims’ cases, will speed up the conviction rates and show the community that the government is very serious about curbing this type of violence.

“We are standing behind victims and we have heard their call. We are here to assure our women and children that these courts will provide them with a safe haven and that we are here to assist them,” he said. “Victims can have peace of mind that justice will be served on those who commit these harsh offences.”

Victims of gender-based violence can call the Gender-Based Violence Command Centre toll-free on 0800 428 428 for assistance. They can also contact the Command Centre by way of a ‘please call me’ at *120*7867# with a request that a social worker contact them or they can sms the word ‘help’ to 31531. They can also call institutions such as Life Line, toll-free, on 0800 150 150 or 0861 322 322.

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