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16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence – Women Court Workers Breaking Cycle of Violence in South Africa
November 30, 2009

Victims of violence access protection, understand their rights and begin to heal

Tanya sits in a circle with sixteen soft spoken female colleagues, tears rolling down her cheeks. She recounts the fourth murder to take a member of her family in four years. In her lap, and that of her co-workers, are small red leather planners. To the eye this could be a women’s help group, but the gathering is much more. These South African women are victims of violence. Through a USAID grant they are among 67 female court workers who have been trained to help victims of abuse access protection orders, learn their rights and begin the healing process.

Statistics from the South African Institute for Security Studies point to more than 52,000 cases of rape and attempted rape reported to police between 2001 and 2002. Domestic violence and rape are rife among the poorest in South Africa. Violence is an accepted circumstance of life explains Abby, a middle-aged woman in a brightly-colored head shawl, “We told our brides they must suffer. This project helps us to see women have been abused for a long time in our culture.” Poverty, stigmatization, inadequate legal services and a lack of psycho-social care, prevent communities from breaking the cycle of violence.

The Court Support Desk Project enlists volunteer court workers trained in counseling, mediation and mobilization skills to assist abuse victims in 11 courts in impoverished neighborhoods surrounding Cape Town. Implemented by Mosaic Training and Healing Centre for Women, which has assisted in the domestic violence sections of courts since 1997, and funded by USAID, the project has helped more than 66,000 victims file protection orders, undergo psycho-social counseling and receive education on abuse. Court workers assist victims in the complex paperwork involved in filing a protection order, provide crisis intervention counseling and educate victims about abuse. The women earn a stipend for full-time shifts in courts across various communities.

Court workers counsel victims from small rooms assigned by the courts. In front of one court, victims are assisted from a transformed shipping container for lack of space. Few of the women have completed a secondary education and almost all were unemployed before being trained by this project, ‘These skills have given me something for life’, says one court worker, “I counseled others, but I was also counseling myself ”. Many court workers gained the courage to leave abusive relationships for good as a result of assertiveness training provided by this project.

Judges continue to request the Court Support Desk Project. In some jurisdictions, judges acknowledge that only a fraction of victims would be reached without the initiative. Courts have requested services on extra days. Data on abuse collected by this project are consulted regularly by external agencies wishing to gain a better understanding of abuse. Fifteen thousand copies of a practical guide to the protection order process have been distributed to judges, victims, prosecutors and community members. The Court Support Desk Project facilitates community meetings that bring key stakeholders to the table to improve the effectiveness of the many thousands of protection orders that continue to be sought by victims of violence.

With international donor support, Mosaic is addressing multiple causes of high rates of crime, violence, poverty and unemployment. It launched school and community garden projects to mitigate malnutrition in needy communities. Community workshops offering mobilization skills doubled in number over the last year. Two-thousand and ninety women were provided with valuable skills. Mosaic has been able to double its office and service space and is well-positioned for what will undoubtedly be a continued rise in demand for its programs.

Personal tragedies like Tanya’s are not uncommon. Going around the circle during monthly meetings like this one, court workers ‘touch base’ on issues in the courts and in their lives. The sessions provide opportunities to celebrate personal triumph too. Today the graduation of one woman’s child from school is celebrated; the woman attributes her child’s success to the skills she learned through the program.