Giving power to victims of crime

28 November 2007

The launch of the national five-year implementation of the South African Victims Charter is set to give back power to victims of crime in the country and ensure that they are not short-changed by those whose job it is to help them.

The Service Charter for Victims of Crime in South Africa, approved by the Cabinet in 2004 and officially launch on 21 November 2007, combines the current legal framework on the rights of victims of crime with the services to be provided to them.

It identifies seven key rights for which victims can demand service from the criminal justice system and related service providers like hospitals.

Implementation the key
The Victims Charter sets high aspirational standards for the criminal justice system, but implementation is key to its success, a point that researcher and activist against gender violence Lisa Vetten agrees with.

“It’s a good idea and a good initiative,” says Vetten, who works for the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women. “It is also important to keep the dialogue and partnership open and engage with people.

“I think a practical document that sets out rights is useful, but my concern is implementation,” Vetten adds. She says the Minimum Standards on Service for Victims of Crime needs to be more specific to allow victims to know what they can request and the police to know what is required of them.

Anticipating this concern, the government has taken steps ensure implementation of the Charter, and work already under way by the justice, crime prevention and security cluster shows that the policy framework is in fact quite realistic.

Steps taken
Child victim and witness rooms have been created in 35 courts with one-way glass partitions, and 54 Sexual Offences Courts have been established with an average conviction rate to date of 62%.

Another 52 new Correctional Supervision Parole Boards were established in 2005 and, for the first time ever in South Africa, victims can make presentations to the Parole Board and attend parole hearings.

In 2004, the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit was given priority by the South African Police Service (SAPS). That same year the sexual offences and community affairs unit of the National Prosecuting Authority opened four multidisciplinary Thuthezela Care Centres in support of rape victims.

The Charter aims to ensure that victims remain central to the criminal justice process in South Africa, to eliminate “secondary victimisation” from this process.

The complementary Minimum Standards on Service for Victims of Crime aims to explain the rights contained in the Victims’ Charter further, and to help make these rights a reality – by giving detailed information to enable victims to exercise their rights and service providers to uphold them.

‘People need to know’
“The Charter is definitely going to help victims a lot,” says Boitumelo Kekana, a social worker and trauma counsellor who has worked at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation’s victim empowerment programme for the last 10 years.

In her daily dealing with clients who are survivors of crimes, Kekana says she frequently finds that people do not know their rights.

“Having this kind of information [the Charter] will help empower people instead of them being short-changed,” she says.

Kekana says that when she works with child abuse cases, she finds that it is common for parents to report a crime where their child is concerned at a local police station and leave after being told that the case will be investigated.

“Parents do not know that they had the right to ask for information, the case number or a contact number of the investigating officer – they often just give up,” Kekana says.

Kekana says the Charter, which clearly states that victims have the right to offer information and the right to receive information, will help victims of crimes become educated on their legal, social and medical options.

Both the Charter and the Minimum Standards were translated into South Africa’s 11 official languages and Braille and made available on audio-cassette in 2005.

Over 20 000 government officials and personnel, police officers and “train-the-trainers” have been trained on the Victims Charter nationally, including the chairperson and vice-chairperson of all the Parole Boards.

In 2006, 50 000 victims were prepared for court by 66 trained court preparation officers and the Victims Support Directorate established in 2005 as part of the Department of Justice.

Ongoing debate
When the public consultation on the implementation of the Charter was done earlier this year, the government received submissions from 50 organisations and individuals. Provincial consultations were also held with all government departments on the national implementation plan.

Vetten believes that debate around the Charter should be ongoing to ensure that people make best use of it.

For example, while the Charter provides for victims who choose to use the criminal justice system, Vetten questions what will happen to victims who choose not to report a crime but still seek counselling or other services.

SAPS chief director Susan Pienaar says that while the police cannot render the appropriate services to victims of crime if the crime is not reported – because they would not be aware of the victim’s situation – other services linked to the Charter and the Minimum Standards, for example social services, can be carried out.

“One must also note that the right to access information, as set out by the Charter, is not related to reporting a case, and therefore anyone can still request information regarding services for victims of crime, regardless of whether the crime has been reported or they themselves are victims.”

Source: BuaNews