Today a tweet was sent by the Department of Women. The question it asked was:
‘What should be done with women who press charges then later withdraw them?’
This very short blog post will unpack why that language is problematic, and does not, as the department later suggested, promote debate. It also provides some answers to what was a very poorly worded question.
1. Very few women report in the first place, and language that suggests that they’ll be punished for withdrawing will discourage women further.
Studies vary in their findings, but many of them show that less than half of all women abused (whether physically, economically, or sexually) report the violence against them. Of those women who are brave enough to report, very few ever see the perpetrator of the crime convicted. We should be finding ways to support women in staying in the criminal justice system, of course. More convictions mean more baddies in jail. BUT, when the justice system takes up to two years, we must respect the rights of the women who want to take their healing elsewhere.
With this in mind, one answer to the problematic question could be: Provide financial support to the organisations that provide counselling and emotional support to survivors of abuse.
2. This language seems to imply that women are reporting cases to waste officials’ time, or that they are not reporting a legitimate case.
It is true that in South Africa a shocking number of reported cases of domestic violence are withdrawn by the victim of the crime. This is not simply because they’ve “changed their mind” but for many other complex reasons including:
Economic dependence: In 2012 it was reported before Parliament that 54% of women that report a case of domestic violence later withdraw the charge because they are economically dependent on their abuser. Women are more likely to be unemployed, and when employed are more likely to earn less. Sometimes choosing to withdraw is choosing between abuse and hunger.
So another answer to the question could be: Make sure that women have access to economic opportunities, that government enforces PEPUDA and the Employment Equity Act more effectively. Fund more shelters so that women have safe places to go to when they need to leave. Fund them adequately.
Pressure from communities or families to “work on their relationship”: In some cases, women face pressure from the family of the abuser, or from their own families, to make their marriage or relationship work, rather than pursuing the case through the courts.
So here an answer to that question might be: Provide training on rights in school curricula so every girl knows that when she’s a woman, she doesn’t have to stay in an abusive relationship. Provide community dialogues in each and every municipality across the country, at an appropriate and accessible time (not during working hours), with crèche facilities, so that all adults in the community can attend. Make sure every South African is aware of their right to live free from violence.
Criminal justice system fatigue: The criminal justice system process is very slow by nature, and because of a significant number of new cases reported each year, and the backlog of existing cases, the South African system is even slower. Add to this a general lack of legal literacy (i.e. awareness of court and legal processes, as well as rights), and it can become an overwhelming and painful process to go through. The women who remain in the criminal justice system to the very end of their case are incredibly brave and strong, and should be celebrated. But those who withdraw for whatever reason it might be should not be criticised or punished for choosing to find their healing elsewhere. They should remain supported.
So another answer to that question might be: Make the courts accessible. Address backlogs of existing cases. Address whether the protection order system is implemented and working — what challenges women face, what ways it could be made easier.
Because they might think that the perpetrator might not do it again: A relationship is a complex thing, and involves emotions. These can be abused and manipulated just as much as they can be nourished and cherished. Abuse is often cyclical and linked to alcohol and substance abuse. This may lead the woman who reported to believe that their partner will never abuse them again. They may thus decide to give the relationship a second chance.
So an answer to the question here might be: Develop dialogue among men and women about the patterns of abuse. Ensure that perpetrators of domestic violence and other abuse are prosecuted. Develop materials about the warning signs for abuse — publicise these.
Women are threatened with further and more violent abuse, or even death, when they report: In many instances, when a perpetrator finds out that an interim protection order has been obtained, this results in further violence or threats of violence. According to recent research fromLisa Vetten, 18% of women were threatened and 10% indicated that the abuse had become worse when they reported.
So an answer to the question with this in mind would be: Fund more shelters; make women safe after reporting. Ensure that perpetrators of domestic violence and other abuse are prosecuted.
These are only some possible reasons why a woman might choose to withdraw her case. Unfortunately, because of dangerous myths about abuse, many women who withdraw are at risk of facing further criticism for this withdrawal, and, because of myths about reporting, are sometimes labelled as liars when this isn’t the case.
The bottom line, though, is that questions should not be linked to women’s responsibility to prevent themselves from being abused, but should be about why men abuse. Where women are brave enough to report, we should support them, throughout their own individual process and journey, not ask “what should be done with them”.