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South Africa Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha opens Sexual Offences Court in Bethlehem

South Africa Minister of Justice and Correctional Services Michael Masutha opens Sexual Offences Court in Bethlehem

Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha, on Friday, officially launched a Sexual Offences Court in Bethlehem, Free State. The new court in is expected to go a long way in providing much-needed protection to a large number of victims and survivors of sexual crimes in the area.

Minister Masutha said that government is serious about addressing the problem of sexual violence, especially for vulnerable groups, regardless of their geographical location.

“The re-establishment of these Sexual Offences Courts aims to provide victim support services in a bid to eliminate secondary victimisation of complainants in sexual offences,” Minister Masutha said.

He said the court will also ensure that sexual offences trials are dealt with speedily, especially those involving children. Ensuring that the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences happens effectively is important for the court.

Minister Masutha said it was important to speak of sexual offences as a form of gender based violence and human rights abuse.

“It is our obligation as government to put in place measurers to strongly condemn these violations in defence of our democracy,” he said.

The Minister also used the occasion to weigh in on the escalating rate of sexual violence against women, especially children, in the country. He said government has enacted various measures to deal with all forms of gender based violence, including sexual offences. 

“We seek to protect our citizens from sexual violence as a matter of urgency and the stark reality is that this is a fundamental responsibility bestowed on government by our democracy and our Constitution,” said the Minister.

He hopes to upgrade 57 Regional Courts into Sexual Offences Courts by the end of 2015/16 financial year.

As part of the three-year commitment to the roll out, the Minister said the department received funding to monitor the outcomes of the first nine Sexual Offences Courts, which were established in terms of the 2013/2014 Medium Term Strategic Framework from the Criminal Asset Recovery Account.

Petronela Mekoa (43) told SAnews.gov that the real trauma for rape survivors is having to endure lengthy court process. She shared her experience of supporting a rape survivor through normal court proceedings.

“It was very difficult to testify even for her as an adult. There were males in the courtroom - from the magistrate, the policemen… and having to relive the incident in such an environment was embarrassing for the victim,” said Mekoa.

Her hope for the dedicated unit is reduced trauma for victims, and making them feel more protected.

Thabiso Mofokeng (28) hopes that the unit will have the political will, be adequately staffed and sustainable enough to make a significant impact on the levels of violence against women in the area.

“I hope it will make a difference, taking into account the number of convictions of rapes we hear of in the area. I also hope it will improve the skills of court personnel, which has contributed to the efficient prosecution and adjudication of some cases.”

Another community member, Mimiki Mphuthu (37), believes the unit will contribute to reducing the escalating incidents of rape in the area and ensure that perpetrators are put behind bars.

“The court came at the right time when we are celebrating Women’s Month and I believe it will speed up the process of prosecution for those found guilty. When cases take longer, we lose confidence in the police and justice system,” said Mphuthu.

Sexual Offences Courts were reintroduced last year as part of government’s initiative to help address the growing challenge of sexual offences in the country, particularly against vulnerable groups. The concept of Sexual Offences Courts was first introduced in South Africa at the Wynberg Regional Court, Cape Town, in 1993.  

The pilot proved to be a huge success, as it maintained a conviction rate of up to 80% over a period of a year. This became a strong motivation for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to establish further Sexual Offences Courts around the country.

By the end of 2005, there were 74 Sexual Offences Courts countrywide, whose main achievements then included the increase in conviction rates and a decrease in the turnaround time from the date of report to the police, up to the finalisation of the case.

Even though these courts recorded considerable success, there were a number of challenges that led to their demise, including dedicated budget, restricted space capacity in courts, lack of training of court personnel and monitoring and evaluation mechanism developed specifically for the management of these courts.

Years went by and the number of these courts dwindled, until they stopped.

But the increasing number of sexual crimes in the country forced government to reconsider the introduction of these courts; but now, they are doing it better. A ministerial advisory task team on sexual offences set up by government recommend that the courts be reintroduced in 2013.

Since their reintroduction last August, there are 22 of these designated courts across the country.  

Photo Caption: Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Michael Masutha. Photo courtesy of SAnews.gov.