The South African government announced this week that it will reintroduce 22 sexual offences courts by the end of 2014, with the first opening on August 16.
The idea for courts that deal specifically with cases of sexual offence was first seen in South Africa in 1993, and grew to become 74 established courts across the country by 2005.
While the specialized courts increased conviction rates and improved the length of time it took to prosecute, All Africa reported, there were myriad challenges that ultimately devastated the courts’ ability to function, and thus remain active.
"Some of the challenges included the lack of a specific framework to establish these courts, a dedicated budget, poor visibility of these courts in remote areas, restricted space capacity in courts, lack of training of court personnel and monitoring and evaluation mechanism developed specifically for the management of these courts,” Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development Jeff Radebe said on Tuesday.
Eventually 65 courts were dissolved, leaving only nine, which continued to operate in a country with an ever-rising number of violent sexual assaults against women.
The Medical Research Council, which has called South Africa’s situation “a globally unprecedented problem of violence against women and girls,” estimates that only one in 25 rapes is ever reported to authorities.
Reliable statistics are hard to pin down as a consequence, but organizations have approximated that there is one rape every 11 minutes—or 48,060 rapes a year.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president who approved the reopening of the courts, was himself accused and successively acquitted of rape in a 2006 controversy prior to entering presidential office.
"The task team has concluded that our current court system requires special courts to ensure an adequate response to the special needs of the sexual offence victims,” Radebe said. "We believe that these sexual offences courts will help address the growing challenge of sexual offences in the country, particularly against vulnerable groups.”
A new study—released by the ministerial advisory task team to investigate the viability of re-establishing the courts—with the announcement of the decision to revive the system has addressed some of the issues that caused it to fail in the first place.
The reinstated courts will function through specially trained officials and equipment, which will enable victims to identify the accused from a private testifying room when necessary. The goal, according to the report, is to reduce the chance of secondary trauma for victims.
Private waiting rooms will serve to hold child witnesses and house victim support services. The court will also have a designated court clerk and a court preparation program to aid witnesses in preparing for appearances, and to provide debriefing following testimony.
Radebe said these specialized courts would be centered around the needs of the victim, ensuring a prompt, effective court system that will reduce the chances for any one victim to experience a second abuse.
"Work in the implementation of these recommendations has already commenced,” he said. “The department has already identified 57 regional courts for upgrading and equipping with modern technology to operate as sexual offences courts. This work has commenced in the 2013/14 financial year”
The government, he added, has enough in its 2013-2014 budget to ensure that 22 courts “will be up and running in this year.” In a three-year period, he predicted, South Africa will have completed and equipped 57 courts nationwide.
“Perpetrators of these heinous crimes must be brought to book,” Radebe insisted. “And this is one of the ways of dealing with it.”