Women and children who are victims of sexual abuse and violence should be protected. We all agree on this.
Or do we really?
Since 1994, South Africa has signed and ratified a number of key international and regional protocols to address the incidence of sexual violation and violence against women and children.
South Africa has one of the most liberal constitutions in the world and the human rights culture is being built through the framework of our constitution.
The right to dignity and the right to privacy are fundamental rights protected in our constitution.
Women and children who have been sexually violated and who have bravely reported their cases of violation, have a right to be protected from further abuse.
But, is this the reality experienced by women and children when they report their cases of sexual abuse?
Are their human rights being protected once they report their cases?
And, are the best interests of a child being treated with the importance which international treaties demand and South Africa’s laws require?
I am dismayed when I hear of the secondary abuse that occurs when women and children report their cases. This includes:
• Police officers issuing instructions for children to undergo unnecessary medical examinations of their genital areas;
• Threats of arrest should complainants consider withdrawing their cases;
• Arrogant and ignorant public prosecutors who disregard the sensitivities around these cases;
• Lengthy delays and unnecessary postponements due to the incompetence of the officials involved;
• Blunted psychologists who seem to think it is irregular to have someone sitting with a minor who is testifying in a trial;
• Debauched attorneys who have nothing to do with a case, yet who attend in camera proceedings, as the audience, during evidence given by sexually violated children;
• Long postponements mid-testimony to suit the diaries of defence teams and the rights of incarcerated accused; and
• There is the manner in which these matters are reported in the media.
There is no doubt that the media plays an important role in informing the public of justice in action.
“Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done” is a principle of our justice system.
The media is often the vehicle which sees and tells our communities about justice being done.
In the matter of Government of the Republic of South Africa versus the Sunday Times’ Newspaper and another ( 2 SA 160 (T) 165) Judge Joffe said the role of the press in a democratic society could not be understated. The press is in the frontline of the battle to maintain democracy.
However, how often do we hear and read explicit details of sexual violation reported in the media.
Such reports not only directly infringe on the privacy and dignity of the women or children involved, but also violates us with the explicit reporting.
A sexually violated woman often feels empowered when she has testified in a closed court room.
Bravely, she tells her story and relives the details and often the horror of her violation. She feels she has been heard.
Often the empowerment is experienced, regardless of whether the perpetrator is convicted or acquitted.
But, when the media gets hold of her story and splashes the sordid details of her violation, often quoting her on a front page, her world crashes and the sense of being an overcoming survivor is replaced by an overwhelming sense of being a victim once again – violated and abused again.
Graphic descriptions and explicit details are reported for reasons of sensation and boosting sales. These matters can even be displayed on street posters.
Yet paragraph 3.4 of the code of ethics and conduct for South African print and online media says rape survivors and survivors of sexual violence shall not be identified without the necessary consent.
A court may also order that the names of complainants are not to be published.
But through detailed descriptions of their ages, geographical locations and circumstances of the crime, these complainants can be identified by their peers and the community at large.
A sexually violated women’s privacy is, once again, invaded.
Her friends, family and colleagues who often did not know, are made aware of the intimate and explicit details of the sexual violation.
Her dignity is crushed. She is abused and violated once again, and again, and again.
I long for the day when we receive statistics showing a decline in incidents of sexual abuse. But, until such day comes, I long to see and hear that our legal justice system, together with the media, not merely paying lip service to the rights of women and children who have been sexually violated.
I long for a day when our police officials, the prosecuting staff, the psychologists, the attorneys and defence teams treat these women and children without causing further abuse.
And a day when the media uses its power, in the frontline of the battle for democracy, to prevent secondary abuse of these brave women and children.
These courageous women and children who report their cases, often do so for the protection of unknown others who may continue being abused if they do not speak up.
Megan Puchert is an East London-based advocate