Tackling Gender-Based Violence from the Bottom Up

Centre for Community Justice and Development’s Paralegals Bring Justice In KZN

The impact of COVID-19 has had devastating impact on people’s well-being, livelihoods and health.

The last few months of the lock down has also increased cases of gender-based violence and domestic abuse.

It is easy to feel helpless when another brutal case violence against a woman is headlined in the local media.   Grim statistics can overwhelm us and often make us feel that despite the media attention and the awareness campaigns, the scourge continues without any progress.

In KwaZulu Natal, a patient grassroots effort led by the  Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD) is demonstrating how improving access to justice through a strong network of trained community-based paralegals can bring justice and longer-term solutions to gender based violence.

In a country with a dual legal system, acting on abuse and violence within the family can be complex and often overwhelming for a victim who may not be able to navigate the system.

The CCDJ, with a team of 60 paralegals and a network of 29 community centres working in some of the poorest and remotest parts of the province, has developed a model they called Ubuntu that bridges a gap between traditional customary law and the criminal justice system.

CCDJ, initially started in 1989 by academics from the University of Natal, is at the forefront of providing a formula of restorative justice to those who often would not be able to access legal services and building bridges between the two legal systems. Informed by three decades of community engagement and research, their approach seeks to address barriers like language and culture and using a strong case management system.

We know there initially was a lot of mistrust in the formal legal system. While the laws on paper might have become more progressive, often victims will have real hesitation to pursue it through the formal court system. And if the traditional customary system was unable to resolve the matter there was no follow up to take it further or offer protection explains Jabu Sangweni, CCJD Director. Our model is built on working through a trained paralegal, who living and from the community, is able to identify human rights violations and help the victim take practical steps to get justice by bringing both legal systems together to offer the best solutions.

The complementary system allows a person to first go to the traditional chief to see if they can resolve the matter.

Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD)

The local chief can inflict traditional sentences that involve the abuser paying damages in the form of a goat or cow.

Often this type of resolution can provide more emotional healing that a court hearing, but it may need to be complemented by a protection order from the court system, to ensure an abusive husband has to keep his distance from the family until he has addressed his behaviour.

The paralegal, who equipped with knowledge of both legal systems, helps to make sure that the victim is given the best outcome which may at times involve a mix of a court protective order along with a traditional customary consultation. They also seek to monitor the case and provide ongoing support.

We need to remember that often cases domestic violence and abuse cannot be disconnected from the enormous pressures that exist, especially in poor families. While women want the abuse to end, they don’t want their husbands, who may be the only breadwinner to lose his job or go to prison, explains Sangweni. A woman may just want someone to help mediate between her and her husband.

This is where the community legal centres can play an important role fostering collaboration and trust between different parties allowing them to negotiate and seek to resolve the situation.

We have come to understand that gender-based violence is the entry point to much more complex and serious problems within a family. Maybe it is about access to food or a lost job. Or there is disabled child in the family or a situation of illness. Women often worry more than anyone in the family and then bear the brunt of the frustrations being felt by their partner or their children, Sangweni said. We can just stop with the violence and ignore the other issues. It can be a maze of challenges where the family needs support.

Often having a paralegal write a letter requesting mediation with the local magistrate’s court or with the police, can lead to a positive outcome as husband or father, understands that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated. It also allows the community legal centre to follow up and monitor the situation.

We work within the community to identify a person, who already has their respect and trust, that would be able to also handle the emotional stress the job brings, explains Sangweni. We want the community’s buy in to the appointment and then after an initial orientation, begin a six-month training programme to understand both how customary laws and the legal system works as well as build the interpersonal and mediation skills they will need for the job.

The CCJD’s 20-year old paralegal accredited course, is now attracting students from different provinces that are seeking ways to strengthen systems of restorative justice.

We know that even with more lawyers the problem of family and gender-based violence would not be solved. We need people to be embedded in their communities and not just act as lawyers but as mediators and facilitators to help deal with the complexity that accessing justice means if you are poor, a woman or living in a rural or remote part of the country.

Social Justice Initiative

Author Social Justice Initiative

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