I am honoured to be here this morning, witnessing this laudable development in the fight against child abuse. This is indeed an important step in responding to the plight of children, one of the most vulnerable and defenseless groups in society.
I would like to congratulate the Child Witness Institute on establishing the Child Witness Foundation, a move that is expected to reinforce the work that the Institute has been doing for the past two decades in the area of child abuse. Since the early days of our democracy, the Institute has been involved in the plight of abused children, focussing mainly in research and care for victims, influencing government policy in the process.
You must be commended for your exemplary act of not moaning the darkness, electing to take the initiative to light a candle instead.
Our late icon and former President Nelson Mandela once said that “there can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than the way it treats its children”. Indeed if, as a society, we allow our children to be destroyed through crime and other maladies, our nation is poisoned at its source.
As I reflected on your initiative I recalled a case I issued a report on as Public Protector early in my term. I believe it was around 2010. The case involved allegations of maladministration and undue delay in the handling of the case of a 14-year-old child, who I shall call Ms M. She had been gang-raped.
An own-initiative case by one of our investigators Adv. Erika Cilliers, following an article in the Sowetan newspaper, the concern was that the child had had to endure 48 postponements of her case in nine years. The case was eventually withdrawn, allegedly due to lack of evidence though suspects were known and had been arrested and released on bail and only resuscitated when organs of civil society, like yours that are concerned about violence against women and child justice, intervened.
The perpetrators were ultimately found guilty and given 15-year sentences. But by the time the case was finalised nine years later the child was a young woman whose life had been ruined irreparably, including dropping out of school.
Following a Public Protector investigation, which focussed on the plight of the victim, we red-carded the entire justice value chain, from the police to the courts for failing this child, going against the dictates of the Victims Charter. Remedial action included a diagnosis of the criminal justice process to identify systemic administrative deficiencies that had allowed the ball to drop. The Department of Justice was required to apologise to the victim and pay her a consolatory amount for the suffering she had to endure. Although this was done, young Ms M’s life will never recover the trajectory it was on before the rape and secondary victimisation by the criminal justice system.
That is why the Public Protector Team is encouraged by the Child Witness Foundation initiative and happy to associate with this noble initiative. It is my hope that your initiative will contribute to ensuring that, in future, no child suffers the secondary trauma that Ms M endured for nine years. One the most heart breaking things about Ms M was when she told the Sowetan,which followed her story tenaciously, that had she known that she would be humiliated like that, with the case going back and forth, unnecessarily drawn out like that, she would have not reported the crime. Indeed there are many who do not report such crimes for the same reasons. It is also our hope that your research will contribute towards identifying the causal and influencing factors behind all forms of child abuse, including rape.
As we speak, child abuse, in particular sexual abuse of children, is a serious societal challenge in South Africa. Even though children are entitled to all the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, under Chapter 2 of our Constitution, with Section 28 thereof being specifically devoted to the rights of children, including that every such person has a right “to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation”, children still face a hostile environment out there. The most sad part is that the most dangerous place for a child is increasingly their homes. The adults that should be doing everything to protect children are increasingly the monsters harming the children.
Rape is one of the major thieves that take away the innocence of children, derailing many of them thereafter from a normal development path that should free their potential as promised by the Constitution in the preamble. Your own information as the Child Witness Institute shows that “more than a third of all girls will experience sexual violence before their 18th birthday and that, of all rape reports, more than half of the victims are under the age of 18 and 15% are under 12 years of age.”
Worse, only one percent of rapes are ever reported and this, you have said, points to the need for a justice system that understands that children need different treatment, an important point that I totally concur with.
Just last week, official crime statistics for the year 2015/16 were released, showing that nearly a thousand instances of sexual offences were reported every week of that year.
The data showed that over 51,000 cases were recorded across the country. This means there were more than 140 cases reported each day. About 80% of these cases related to rape while the rest had to do with sexual assault.
Although these represent a general 3.2% decrease in sexual offences, despite an 8.9% spike in the Northern Cape and a 1% rise in Limpopo, the numbers are still high and this is no course for celebration.
Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, as the most populated provinces, recorded 9510 and 8949 cases, respectively. Although official statistics are not disaggregated, anecdotal evidence shows that the murder of children has also increased considerably over the years.
My concern, which I shared with the security cluster in relation to Glebelands killings is that crime, including murder statistics, do not tell us the percentage of resolved murders. In other countries crime statistics include accountability on crimes that have been resolved, particularly crimes such as murder. Incidentally this is the aspect of crime combatting that can be legitimately attributed to the law enforcement agencies.
One of my hopes is that crime statistics will in future focus on the number of crimes solved as is done in countries like Mauritius because reporting of crime can be manipulated. If we are to focus on crimes solved, we naturally have to look at the number of cases that are handled diligently until resolved and the number of convictions for matters such as child abuse, including rape. Child abuse should be low lying fruit because its mostly cases of assault, which leave evidence. Rape too can be relatively easy as consent is not a defence to statutory rape.
This brings me to the question of how the criminal justice system should approach cases involving minors. Charlotte Maxeke, a trailblazer in the area of child justice, warned nearly a century ago that straight-jacketing children into a criminal justice system designed for grown ups was inappropriate for children. Since then some of her child justice ideas have been mainstreamed in the criminal justice system but the system remains anchored in the paradigm of the ideal participant been a gown up man, who is affluent, educated and I must unfortunately add, white.
As Public Protector Team we are encouraged that the foundation will contribute towards efforts aimed at providing support to child witnesses while integrating children’s experiences and perspectives in the justice processes. Through the Foundation’s efforts and those of like-minded professionals that are involved in justice reform, particularly to ensure social justice and related responsiveness, it is my hope that in the near future no child will suffer the secondary trauma or victimisation experienced by Ms M in the name of justice.
It is also our hope that all victims of crime will report such crimes and not hold back for fear of victimisation as Ms M said she would have done had she known she would be humiliated by the justice system and sent back and forth for nine years. We must admit that, in her case, law operated but not justice. Your efforts will contribute towards bridging the gap between law and justice as envisaged by Charlotte Maxeke many years ago.
This goes to the heart of why a different approach is needed as it could be one of the reasons why cases go unreported.
There is a strong need for official data on the prevalence of child abuse, including sexual offences against minors. Research is also needed regarding the causes of crime particularly violent crime against children, including rape, other forms of abuse and murder. This will help society, including government and nonprofit organisations such as the Child Witness Institute to develop programmes geared towards addressing the scourge. It is not enough to say we have had these many cases of sexual violence. We need to break it down into categories in order to shine a spotlight on the plight of vulnerable groups.
Research into causal and influencing factors is important for prevention and rehabilitation of offenders. We should stop sexual abuse before it occurs by diagnosing the cause and deal with it. We should establish, among other things, why certain people think and believe, as alleged in cases such the “Baby Tshepang” ordeal, that sleeping with a child will result in cure for HIV/Aids.
I am certain that your work will contribute to ensuring that children who testify in court for culprits to be brought to book, are not made to suffer the trauma of the abuse all over again when in a court set up as seen in the case of Ms M. Your work will complement specialised courts such as the Sexual Offences Courts and the services rendered there, including court preparation to familiarise victims with court processes, pre and post court debriefing, intermediary services, private testimony, private waiting rooms and witness fee services.
I hope your work will also contribute to judicial education to mainstream children’s experiences in trial processes and considerations made in adjudicating and sentencing. You will agree with me that it is imperative that the judiciary and all the role players who come into contact with child witnesses in the justice system be trained on social context awareness to be able to approach cases involving minors in a responsive way. Should this consistently happen, experiences such as Ms M’s will be matters of the past and more victims or survivors will report while relevant crimes will be reduced due to effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms, among other things.
Once again, let me congratulate the Child Witness Institutive on the establishment of the Child Witness Foundation. We trust that this development will go on to augment the work you have been doing in research, training and supporting both victims and practitioners in your area of focus.
We live in a country whose Constitution promises an improved quality of life for all and a freed potential for each person. All of us need to do our bit in making this a reality. You are already doing that. May your efforts inspire others to follow suit.
Adv. Thuli Madonsela
Public Protector of South Africa