Taking a Closer Look at the Domestic Violence Act

Wednesday, 3 December, 2008 - 14:00

The Domestic Violence Act has been a focus of much activism amongst women’s rights activists. Last week the CSVR hosted the ‘South African Domestic Violence Act (DVA) Lessons from a Decade of Legislation and Implementation’ conference to take a closer look at the Act.

From 26-28 November 2008, the Centre for the Study of Violence of Reconciliation (CSVR) hosted the ‘South African Domestic Violence Act (DVA) Lessons from a Decade of Legislation and Implementation’ conference in Johannesburg. Attended by approximately 120 delegates came together to review the implementation of the DVA over the past 10 years.

The DVA has been a focus of much activism amongst women’s rights activists. Monitoring its implementation has meant engaging with the criminal justice system –from police to prosecutors and the judiciary; addressing concerns around secondary victimisation due to untrained officials as well as the now infamous challenge to the constitutionality of the Act in Omar v Government, RSA and Others 2006 (2) BCLR 253 (CC).

Speaking at the opening of the conference, executive director of the CSVR, Adele Kirsten said the timing of the conference is significant as “[It] allows us to look at what can be done differently in the next 10 years... Civil society has become fragmented, with organisations piggybacking on similar projects… [We need] more prevention and intervention strategies.”

Domestic violence is a major developmental challenge across the world. It cuts across race, gender, age, class and ethnic differences. According to the Department of Justice’s Guidelines for the Implementation of the Domestic Violence Act for Magistrates, in South Africa it is considered the most common and pervasive human rights abuse in South Africa.

The conference focused broadly on the following thematic areas: legislation and policy, services available for women experiencing domestic violence, the socio-cultural changes necessary to prevent domestic violence, working with perpetrators and the problematic public/private dichotomy of domestic violence.

Wendy Isaack, legal advisor for People Opposing Women Abuse, legal advisor, expressed concern over the under-utilisation of international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which South Africa ratified in 1995. Isaack said the lack of awareness about the provisions of CEDAW and its Optional Protocol, resulted in it not being used as it should. “There is an international obligation to protect women… CEDAW has jurisprudential value; it clarifies the duty of the state; it articulates due diligence standard of law”, she said.

“Where does governments’ responsibility start, beyond the establishment of laws? How should state agents commit to changing the situation and start implementing the [Domestic Violence] Act?" Isaack asked.

Joy Watson, a gender researcher working in Parliament, focused on the implementation of the DVA. She argued that the state has failed women in providing what she calls “proper victim-friendly services.” Watson questioned the competency and sensitivity of the state institutions, and said that while conducting her research, she found that victims had very bad experiences of the courts when reporting their cases.

According to Watson, there is a lack of citizen-awareness and education, serious resource constraints, an enhanced vulnerability of poor women – particularly those in rural areas and a lack of support to women of domestic violence.

“What are the implications of what we see women are saying? How are these voices being heard and are we assimilating what they are saying? In our lobbying activities, are we changing power dynamics and rendering patriarchal systems obsolete?" she asked.

An important issue raised at the conference was the involvement of men’s organisations in eradicating domestic violence. Gender Commissioner at the Commission on Gender Equality, Bafana Khumalo argued that by working with men in the broader economic sector everyone- both men and women - will be able to access opportunities availed to them. “There is no cultural practice that says it is acceptable to beat up your partner; but that within these practices it is more evident that they are to be protected”, he said.

Participants shared the work organisations are doing to eradicate domestic violence. These include shelters, raising awareness of protective rights amongst vulnerable groups by conducting workshops and assisting with the application of protection orders. While their work is commendable, there is only so much that can be done taking into consideration limited resources.

Government should be accountable to the DVA and other legislation in place which advance women’s’ rights. Hopefully the next 10 years of implementing the DVA result in more successes than failures.

- Nicolle Beeby is a programme assistant at SANGONeT.

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