Call for submissions – Dreaming Feminist Futures

Call for Submissions- Dreaming Feminist Futures final 1-page-001


Three things we need now to improve the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act

By Jen Thorpe

This year marks ten years since the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act 32 of 2007 (The Sexual Offences Act) was passed. This legislation came about as a result of significant work from the Department of Justice and critical inputs from civil society. This partnership helped to shape the Act into something that was responsive to the needs of survivors, and had the potential to assist government in holding the perpetrators of sexual offences accountable. The Act requires that the police, the prosecutors and courts, and the health department work together to achieve this.

This is not a time for pats on the back

The most recent crime statistics would have us believe that certain sexual offences are decreasing, and that the conviction rate for sexual offences is high.

However, the reality is that many survivors of sexual offences never report to the police, and that the number of sexual offences cases that are prosecuted each year is decreasing. The current performance indicators for police on ‘decreasing the number of sexual offences’ create a perverse incentive for police to turn away sexual offences complainants when they report at a police station.

In addition, the specialised police units such as the Family Violence, Child Protection, and Sexual Offences Units, are not always provided with the financial or human resources they need to do their jobs well. The result is that there is a high attrition rate for cases at the investigation stage, and where cases are not investigated by specialist detectives the quality of investigation remains poor, preventing prosecutors from having much to work with if/ when the case reaches court.

Essentially, what the state’s figures tell us is that fewer survivors of sexual offences have faith in the police, and that fewer cases are investigated to a good enough quality that prosecutors are able to take them up and win a conviction.

This is not a time for pats on the back. This is a matter of serious concern, and misleading statistics that suggest that sexual offences in South Africa are being ‘dealt with’ or addressed in some way by the state are not helpful. In fact, the statistics that are reported change from one year to the next, making tracking the extent of the problems with the criminal justice system difficult to do.

Specialist interventions have been introduced

However, it is not as though no state action has taken place. The Thuthuzela Care Centres  (TCCs) (a one stop model including the police, health, and national prosecuting authority) and the Sexual Offences Courts (courts dedicated to hearing sexual offences cases, with specialist infrastructure, and specialist staff) are two important efforts that have been made by the state to address the problem of sexual offences. These are important interventions, because they increase the likelihood that survivors will get access to the support they need to help them stay in the criminal justice system until a prosecution occurs.

Yet, few of the TCCs or Sexual Offences Courts are operating at the minimum standards set by the state themselves. Section 55A of the Judicial Matters Amendment Bill has not been implemented.

Although the NPA and the DOJ provide glowing reports to Parliament, reports from civil society suggest that many of these facilities are operating at a skeleton stage, without meeting the requirements of specialist police, specialist prosecutors, forensic doctors, or the required infrastructure.

International funds run dry

The TCCS themselves are only partially funded by the state. At the moment they also receive international donor funding. At the same time, the NGO sector which provides critical psychosocial services to many survivors is facing dire funding cuts. International donors are shifting their focus to other matters, with the effect that NGOs are striving to assist survivors on a limited budget, with limited staff capacity. It is urgent that the state functions better for the survivors of sexual offences.

Renewed state action

We are facing a sexual offences crisis that is currently not being addressed effectively by the legislation we have available. Positively it seems, this has not been ignored by the Department of Justice, and steps are in place to address this.

Today and tomorrow, the Department of Justice  is hosting a National Forum on the Implementation of the Sexual Offences Actin partnership with civil society. The forum will focus on three areas:

  • Reporting / investigation,
  • Medico-legal / services to the victim, and
  • Court processes / prosecution and the adjudication of sexual offences.

I am part of the Shukumisa Coalition, a coalition of organisations and individuals that hopes to see particular challenges addressed through resolutions at the Forum today and tomorrow. We hope to see:

  1. A resolution on the operationalisation of Section 55A of the Judicial Matters Amendment Act (around designating sexual offences courts) and the involvement of civil society in drafting the minimum standards and regulations around these courts.
  2. A resolution on the need for the public sharing of clear, consistent, and disaggregated statistics on sexual offences is essential.
  3. A resolution on revising perverse performance standards that reduce the likelihood that sexual offences are reported.

At the moment this forum seems like a positive opportunity for honest reflection. Hopefully it also delivers results.


GENDER POLITICS, Uncategorized

Women’s worth is not in their reproduction – a response to Jay Naidoo

By Jen Thorpe

Jay Naidoo’s recent article I thought I was a feminist – until I heard their stories’ requires a response.

Whilst Naidoo’s article starts out with considered space being given to the stories of the women who shared accounts of their abuse, and is positive in its reflections on what men can do to support women, there is one paragraph in particular that gets under my feminist skin. I’ll unpack it.

August – Month of No Violence Against Women, a government-inspired programme, is a shocking indictment when those in power continue to abuse the trust of women with impunity. I am tired of platitudes. We need every day to be a day of respecting women.”

I am tired of platitudes too. We do need every day to be a day of respecting women.

August, aka ‘women’s month’ makes most South African feminists want to puke. It’s characterised by random events hosted by the Department of Women – a Department that has, since inception, rarely been able to meet its own targets to improve women’s lives, regularly spends irregularly, and is, in my humble opinion, a significant obstacle to gender equality within government programmes and departments.

Departments spend women’s month lauding their own excellence and launching reports, when what they should be doing is sitting down with treasury and allocating some money to implementing services for women. Those in government, we have seen time and time again, continue to abuse women, never mind their trust, with impunity. 

Whilst it’s clear from the general gist of his article that Naidoo is trying to give women the respect that he mentions in the previous sentence, I would like to challenge him on his explanation for the need for this respect.

Women are sacred.

I like the language of ‘women have human rights’ better, but that’s probably just personal preference. It’s the next bit that is problematic.

They give us life.

 Could this be the modern usage of the term, like I’ve seen the young feminists say ‘Zadie Smith gives me life?’ Perhaps. In which case, I agree. Women give me life too. Every damn day. But, the next sentence makes me think this statement is a bit more literal than this.

Where would we be as a human species if women disappeared? Extinct! It is our mothers who carry our children, who give birth to new life, who breastfeed our children and who nurture and raise our children.

 This might be biologically accurate (until scientists grow us in labs), but it is so politically problematic.

Women do perform these tasks, and they are hard and worthy of acknowledgement. But what if, perhaps, we thought about challenging the narrative that this is the only reason that women have value?

Women are not the sum of their reproductive abilities, and they are not just there to raise the kids while the men do all the ‘real work’. This passage also ignores the men who nurture and raise children, and who were part of the reproductive process too.

In addition, it’s clear that we as a society don’t really value these reproductive traits anyway. Whilst we do have maternity leave, it’s not compulsory for the employer to pay a woman during this time. Many mothers are at home on maternity leave stressing about raising human life and about whether they can afford to eat or pay the bills or have the health checks they need post pregnancy to ensure they are healthy.

We don’t have legislated paternity leave, which tells women that not only don’t we value their labour equally to men, but we want them to raise the children all on their own because it is their sacred job and men have real work to do.

This narrative is not helpful. It is harmful and it reinforces an unequal burden of care, and the undervaluing of women’s work and of the many roles that women play in society outside of motherhood. It’s not feminist. Not even a little.

Unfortunately, the rest of the paragraph also lets us down in many ways.

Women are the heart, the love, compassion, generosity and peace that we want in the world.

There are many women I know that are as nice as this makes us sound. But, there is also a problem with socialising and endorsing women as ‘nice’.

First, it means women are afraid to speak up during abusive situations, like those Naidoo describes, because they don’t want to be seen as ‘not nice’. This narrative of women’s niceness is especially harmful for young women, who are told to say yes and be polite and never to say no. Not to unwelcome hugs and kisses from family members. Not to their sexual partner’s advances. Not to sex. Not to harassment. Not to their teacher dismissing them.

Second, too often we teach girls to be peaceful, and kind, and nice and compassionate and those are such valuable characteristics to have in life. But we don’t teach boys the same thing. We teach them to be brave, and fierce, and determined, and never to take no for an answer. We don’t support kind boys and we don’t support fierce girls.

We teach girls to accept and boys to keep trying until they make it. Can you see how this links to a culture of violence against women?

By violating women, we as men violate ourselves.

I agree that violence involves dehumanisation both of the victim and the perpetrator. Gender inequality is bad for both men and women. If I’m reading this right, Naidoo is trying to speak to men here, and tell them that respecting women allows a healthier and more equal reality. But any essence of this potential reading is diminished by the next sentence.

And we crush our real role – of being protectors of what is sacred.

 What this sentence does to the previous one is important. It says that men violating women are doing the wrong thing, not because violating another human is wrong in and of itself, but because they aren’t sticking to their gendered responsibilities of protection.

Women as the protected, men as the protectors. A million theses written in a million gender studies courses worldwide have already dealt with the harm that this narrative causes in rendering women the weaker category of person, requiring men’s help and protection in order to live their lives.

This is patronising and sexist. If you yearn to protect then spend time talking to men about sexism and patriarchy and get them to stop being so violent. Protection doesn’t change the status quo, it maintains it.

Naidoo adds later in his piece,

We men have to learn to listen, with empathy. We have to respect sacred spaces where women can tell their stories. Just listen. Feel. Understand. Not to drown out the voices of our Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Daughters. Just shut up and change

Agree. And as someone who is not a mother, wife, sister, or daughter to Jay Naidoo, I’d like to ask, as the current president might, listen properly.

If women deserve respect, then we deserve that respect for our humanity, our abilities, and our resilience, not simply for our biology or our importance or relationship to men. We are so much more, we always have been.


Bad law is dangerous, not sex work

By Jen Thorpe

Today I learnt that the South African Law Reform Commissions (SALRC) is going to publish its report regarding sex work. Late last year, the SALRC and the Deputy Minister of Justice presented in Parliament, after several consecutive Women’s Parliament reports have demanded the decriminalisation of sex work.

This report released today is a result of a process that started 20 years ago. Twenty years ago our law reflected a fledgeling democracy, finding its feet and trying to redress past discrimination. During these twenty years the SALRC research team on the project has changed, and so has our legal framework.

Many laws have been passed advancing human rights, respecting women’s rights to make choices about their bodies and reproduction, and providing for the protection of LGBTIQ+ people.

But, the SALRC report does not reflect these advancements. The presentation in Parliament months ago reflected sexism in the state’s analysis if issues, and cast women as victims. The bottom line is that a law is not going to stop sex work from happening, but a law can decriminalise sex work, making it safer for sex workers to report abuses against them, and safer for sex workers to seek the healthcare they need so that they and their clients can remain healthy.

It was clear at that time that the SALRC was leaning towards remaining with full criminalisation, or partial decriminalisation. This is despite many presentations from sex workers and sex workers organisations saying that the law in its current form:

  • legitimises harassment of sex workers by police,
  • restricts their access to make choices about their careers and bodies,
  • restricts sex workers access to healthcare,
  • makes it more dangerous to practice sex work and thus increases the vulnerability of sex workers to gender based violence, and
  • serves as an arbitrary form of labour discrimination.

Our democracy is supposed to hear the voices of those affected by law, and to take those voices into account when making and amending legislation. Our government claims it wants to protect women from violence, and prevent the norms that encourage violence.

But it appears that the Department of Justice and the SALRC are deaf to the voices of sex workers. It appears that they are fine with the abuses that sex workers continue to endure because of bad law. There seems to be no other explanation for the decision of the SALRC to ignore research that shows the evidence that decriminalisation is the right choice for South Africa.

I support law that protects women and vulnerable groups from abuse, promotes their right to access basic services and human rights. A law that does not advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work does not do this. The duty of our law is to guide us towards the values of the Constitution – respect for dignity, respect for women, respect for LGBTIQ+ people, respect for choice. The duty of our law is not to make judgements about people’s choices, unless those choices cause direct harm to others.

I have explained before that I support sex work decriminalisation in order to respect the right to dignity of sex workers in South Africa. I support it from an informed perspective from sex work led organisations, and also from the evidence of research, and a commitment to human rights.

There is no evidence to suggest that partial criminalisation works. What is known is that it endangers women further by driving sex work underground, enables violence against women and girls and decreased access to health care.

Hundreds of sex workers have died whilst the SALRC and the Department of Justice have taken their time preparing this report. These deaths occur because the law does not protect sex workers.

I along with many organisations and sex workers across the country, call on the Department of Justice to review this decision and to listen to South African sex workers requests for the decriminalisation of sex work.

#decrimsexwork #sexworkiswork