Domestic Violence System Let Us Down...If Only We Didn't Take a Break
The day after Women's Day, I had the unfortunate experience of spending the whole day at the Wynberg Magistrates Court to assist a friend in obtaining a protection order. Due to various reasons, we could only get there at 10h00 but I strode up confidently to the domestic violence clerk’s office to announce our arrival. I was told that it was too late, we should have been there at 7h45, and we need to return tomorrow. I explained that the situation was urgent but also that I was well aware that you can obtain a protection order from 8h00 to 16h00 and could not return tomorrow morning. Fortunately, she took note and placed us on the list...we were indeed last. After waiting for a few hours we both needed a break. I asked the clerk if there was sufficient time to pop- out for a break, she said yes, so we did. We returned and waited some more until silence descended in the passageway and a door slammed closed. Curiously, I pop- up off the hard wooden bench that we had been resting our tender derrières on to realise that it was the clerk’s office door that had been closed. I knock...I know they're in there, I can hear them. I knock some more. I yell out "hello"...silence descends once more. I can still faintly hear them inside but clearly it's 13h00 and they've gone on lunch and didn't inform anyone. Now I don't spend my days in court so I'm not sure if that's the procedure but surely they should have said something. So (sigh) we leave to return promptly at 14h00. The wait continues. People's names are still being called, there are some new faces, but some old faces too...we assume our time will be coming around soon. An hour later, and I pop into the clerk’s office to ask how much longer as I know there's still a long procedure to go through. I'm told that we were called just before lunch... three times she called us she says. No amount of explaining helped, there's nothing she can do, she says, as the magistrate had already gone for the day and she still had clients to see! "But come back tomorrow", she says, "and be here at 7h45". "No", she answers to my question when I suggest that we be placed first on the list, "it's first come, first serve".
So we were up early the next morning with grand ideas of getting there a whole 45 minutes earlier than 7h45...and the waiting continued. Eventually she was granted the interim protection order but despite having asked countless times that the order state that her boyfriend must leave her home (that he has lived in but has never paid a cent towards), it failed to materialise. When she asked the clerks why not, they told her it was because she had somewhere safe to stay...ok...so, let's get this right...it was okay for her and her one year old baby boy, to be uprooted from their home (and she runs a business from her home) and go stay with her mom while he got to sit back and relax under the roof that she worked hard to pay off? I then called one of Rural Education, Awareness and Community Health (REACH)'s lawyer pals who informed us that yes technically the law states that he has a right to stay in the property. How very frustrating once again! We'd have to wait until the next court date or find the means to get him to leave. Needless, to say, a few days later, after having plucked up the courage to go home, but also has she had no choice because she needed to work, she arrived home to a filthy house, empty electric metre...oh and a missing fridge and washing machine which he sold to "buy food" so he says...
While I thought I had an understanding of how to obtain a protection order, and have supported beneficiaries from farms obtain protection orders from local police stations, this was my first urban court experience. I also understand domestic violence clerks because what I experienced on those two days is a monotonous event for them...day in and day out, queues of people waiting to get pieces of paper that are meant to put a stop to abuse, to the point that I'm sure, victims of abuse no longer hold individual identities...I still think there should be more decency, understanding and sympathy for those who bare the brunt of these long waits.
I'm reminded of the many workshops we hold on domestic violence and all the submissions we present to Parliament on the failure of the implementation of acts such as the Domestic Violence Act, where we warn the judicial system to not fall prey to the same mistakes. Last year we presented a submission to Parliament in partnership with the Women's Legal Centre, which while complementing and aiding suggestions for an enhanced Protection from Harassment Bill, spoke of the failures experienced by women in obtaining protection orders. Obviously, as REACH works with farm and rural women, I was able to preach on about the far distances to court for rural farm women and the chances of not being attended to if a victim didn't arrive to court on time and how this impacted on her losing a day’s wage. And while I continued to preach- on about illiteracy, low levels of education and language barriers rendering application for protection orders and following through with subsequent legal procedures daunting for complainants and further how these factors increased difficulties in dealing with domestic violence clerks and magistrates...I had never experienced it personally until that day when I too wasted two days, felt ill-informed, intimidated and while I was in a sense part of the system (in the work that we do), I was actually just another number...but that's me...what about my friend, the victim of abuse, the one I was supposed to help and support, who sat patiently those two days in court crying gently as she recounted her horrific experiences of abuse. I take solace in the fact that despite the unfairness of this whole process she has not given up. She's still fighting to get her sense of self back as she picks up the pieces of the life that he broke.