Numerous approaches available to women when seeking justice against abuse

By Jabu Sangweni, Director of the Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD)

At the CCJD, we believe confining problems to a single justice institution does not solve domestic discourse of the survivors who seek help at our community-based advice offices (CAOs).

The issues of safety of the victim, culture, language and the debate on the public-private nature of woman abuse have shown us how complex woman abuse is, and that a single strategy on its own will not adequately protect survivors against woman abuse. The policy in addressing justice must be holistic and multi-dimensional and requires the support of government, individuals and corporate support.

The restorative justice process helps to mediate an abusive incident by helping the perpetrator better understand their wrong-doing. We regard the restorative justice process as a teachable moment especially for the offender. It provides the offender with an opportunity and encouragement to learn new ways of acting and self-control. The informal justice system (best described as family mediation) is also preferred by the majority of the women who are victims of woman abuse and it encourages women to confront such violence.

Woman abuse cases the CCJD handles at its CAOs include physical, sexual, emotional, economic and verbal abuse in a domestic relationship. About 40% of the domestic violence cases we handle involve emotional abuse, followed by economic abuse at 35% and the two are often linked.

These two stories highlight how domestic abuse is exacerbated through the different forms of abuse.

Case study:
A 32-year-old woman came to the office to report that her husband was abusing her emotionally and financially. The women lived with her child, husband and the husband’s two sisters. The husband abused her when drunk, demanding food but failed to provide money to buy food. In some instances, he assaulted her for minor reasons. He also insulted her using vulgar language.

The husband’s sisters told the victim to go back to her family. Although the woman left, she did not want to go back to her family, and approached the CCJD for help. She wanted to sit down with her husband and talk to him to resolve their problems.

How we helped:
The CCJD arranged a family conference. The husband did not deny that he assaulted his wife when he was drunk. He apologised and promised not to do so again and told his wife to come back home. They both mentioned that they still loved each other. The wife agreed to go back home. The mother-in-law gave advice and told her son to stop drinking as alcohol had a negative effect on his family. They were satisfied with the results following the conference and we told the wife to report back if the husband continued the abuse.

Case study:
A 35-year-old-woman arrived at one of our CAOs covered in blood after being assaulted by her husband of 15 years with a hammer. The argument was about a taxi they bought together as a source of income. The husband did not believe his wife should have an opinion on the finances of running the taxi because it belonged to him.

The woman approached the CCJD for help because she did not want to open a criminal case against him but still wanted him to be informed of her rights within a marriage.

How we helped:
The CCJD provided basic counselling as she was traumatised, and wrote a referral letter for her to go for further professional counselling. We also arranged for mediation. The mediation took place and the husband said he was drunk and apologised to her. He also promised not to assault her again. We advised them to come to the office and see a legal aid lawyer so that he can further educate them about their rights regarding the assets they have accumulated together.

There is a lack of research on community-based restorative justice processes with victims of woman abuse in South Africa and these cases demonstrate opportunity for research funding that will contribute to the development of policy that addresses the dynamics of domestic violence and its social and economic impact on members of society. Such policy should reflect the reality on the ground.

Community restorative justice is gaining prominence globally, while the criminal justice system is in crisis and in need of reform.