“Everyone is different and everyone deals with rape differently,” Nononelelo, a first response counsellor from the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, says in a quiet but commanding voice, “that’s why we just have to take it as it goes. Try to get to know the person before we get to know the incident”. Nono is speaking in a video recently released by the Global Fund highlighting the role of the first response counsellors at the Victoria Hospital forensic unit.

Nono’s words underline the importance of the ‘human factor’ in services to rape survivors. Often, when we think of justice, we think only of putting the perpetrator behind bars. This is what the National Prosecuting Authority focus on when assessing their performance in providing justice services: of the sexual offence cases that are finalised, how many resulted in convictions of the perpetrators? How quickly did those trials proceed through the criminal justice system?

However, the majority of people who are raped do not turn to the police or seek help through the criminal justice system. As Dee Smythe notes in her book Rape Unresolved: Policing Sexual Offences in South Africa,

“More than 1000 women are raped in South Africa every day. About 150 of those women will report the crime to police. Fewer than 30 of the cases will be prosecuted and no more than 10 will result in conviction. This translates into an overall conviction rate of four to eight percent of reported cases. So what happens to all the other cases?”

While convictions are an important measure of justice, the human element in services to rape survivors is increasingly being pointed to as a critical factor to improve justice outcomes for survivors. How was the survivor treated? Did they access all the necessary services and support they needed? Did they receive adequate counselling and psycho-social support? Was the complainant satisfied with the services they received, even if their case did not result in a conviction? How does the survivor define justice for themselves?

Nono’s colleague Nomnqweno, echoes the sentiment. “There are instances where a survivor will not just look at conviction as a victory to their case. Sometimes feeling you were cared [for], listened [to] and believed and not being judged is the greatest justice they could ever receive. I have had clients who were happy by just being treated as if they are important and their story believed.” Some survivors might not find justice in a courtroom, she explained, but have felt they have got justice just by “telling someone what has happened to them and action being taken whether it’s forensic examination or being referred to a counselling service and start[ing] a process of healing.”

With the pressure on finalising cases and convicting perpetrators, there is a risk that the rape survivor as the central focus of the system may be lost. The roll out of more Thuthuzela Care Centres and Sexual Offences Courts are planned over the course of the next few years but building more sexual offences courts may not translate to caring, compassionate, professional and holistic treatment of survivors. 

In the face of these circumstances, how do survivors know their rights to care and what support is available to them? The My Safe Card condenses this information into an easy to use, practical, pocket-sized format, setting out a survivor’s rights to services and care at each step after being raped or sexually abused – at the hospital or clinic, at the police station, with regards to a court case and when they access support through an NGO. “The safety card ensures that survivors always know services are around them to utilise”, Nomnqweno says. Importantly, it notifies survivors that they can lay complaints if any service provider has treated them unfairly or did not do what they must do by law.

Later this year, NACOSA will distribute the My Safe Card to organisations providing a first response service at Thuthuzela Care Centres. NACOSA’s Gender Based Violence programme, funded by the Global Fund, is a national response to unacceptably high levels of gender based violence which is fuelling HIV. The programme provides a comprehensive package of psycho-social support, HIV services and practical care to gender based violence victims at one-stop Thuthuzela Care Centres and domestic violence shelters.

Lauren Baerecke is a Programme Specialist in Gender Based Violence and holds a dual role at NACOSA, leading NACOSA’s Global Fund GBV programme for Thuthuzela Care Centres and managing the monitoring and evaluation for an USAID-funded project working in South Africa’s sexual offences courts

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