S. Africa finds 'rape courts' work

'The success rates in these ... courts is very good. There are just not enough of them.'- Lorna Jacklin

Rape is so prevalent in South Africa - and conviction rates so low - that three years ago, the government created 29 courts dedicated solely to sexual-assault crimes.

This unique criminal-justice experiment is proving so successful that the government now plans to more than double the number of "rape courts" by the end of next year.

"This is a homegrown solution that has been very effective," says Thoko Majokweni of South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority. "Conviction rates in these courts are much higher. But it's not just about that. It's about making sexual assault a priority and changing attitudes about how a victim is affected and treated by the legal system."

For a country dubbed the "rape capital" of the world, South Africa's legal system is providing a new road map for countries combating sexual assault. The new courts have halved the waiting time for trials while giving more weight to the rights of victims and giving prosecutors more time to develop cases.

The court here in Protea North has eight specially trained prosecutors and four judges who deal only with sexual offenses. Nthabiseng Motsau, the chief sexual-offenses prosecutor, is an energetic young woman with short, red-tinted hair. She rushes from courtroom to courtroom to keep tabs on developing cases. All eight of the prosecutors she supervises are women; Ms. Motsau says they communicate better than men with victims, about 70 percent of whom are children. Because prosecutors don't have to work on murder and robbery cases, they have time to prepare these children for their court appearances.

The Teddy Bear Clinic

A lanky 11-year-old girl sits on the floor of a brightly painted room at the Teddy Bear Clinic, surrounded by faded stuffed animals and a few well-used toys. Around her are scattered a half-dozen puppets and a large laminated photograph of an empty courtroom.

"Hello," says the doll on the hand of Ntombi Mkwanyana, a matronly volunteer counselor who sits beside the girl. "I am the magistrate."

"Hello," responds the girl quietly to the gray-haired, black-robed puppet. The doll and the girl chat back and forth in Zulu, a widely spoken South African language. The puppet explains the job of a judge; the girl asks questions or simply indicates that she understands. She is timid at first, but then begins to enjoy the play. Eventually she picks up another puppet. This one is of a pigtailed girl. It represents her, the child rape victim who is learning to testify in court.

Down the hall, in another brightly painted room, a seven-year-old girl in a pink tank top is preparing to testify. She bounces around the room playfully, waving and chattering, until a large woman in a green suit tells her to come sit down. A retired teacher of 40 years, she serves as an intermediary between the child and the court, relaying questions - which she hears through earphones - while the court watches the girl's responses on closed-circuit television.

A few minutes later, when the testimony begins, the previously bubbly child is gone. Instead, the screen in the courtroom shows a terrified girl huddled close to her intermediary, rubbing her hands nervously as she haltingly tells the court in her high-pitched voice about the day a man held her down and stuck his finger inside her.

An elderly white defense lawyer questions the girl, but there is none of the typical confrontation: no badgering of the witness, no leading questions. Questions are asked repeatedly, in different ways, to clear up confusions.

The sometimes curt queries of the defense lawyer are gently interpreted for the child.

"It's not like a normal court," says the magistrate, Motodzi Nemauhidi, who has been working as a judge for 18 years and has presided in the sexual-offense court since 2001. "You have to exercise a lot of patience, because most of the time you're dealing with children and women who are traumatized."

Some defense lawyers have questioned the victim-centered focus of the new courts, especially the use of intermediaries. But the nation's Constitutional Court has upheld their use.

"Our Constitution has a great number of protections for the accused," says Motsau. "It's good that someone is looking at the victim because, until now, all the rights were for the accused."

South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual assault in the world, causing an overload of the country's traditional courts. Cases can take years to come to trial. In 2000, the last year for which statistics are available, less than 8 percent of the nation's 53,000 reported rape cases - a figure that experts say represents only a fraction of the actual number of rapes - resulted in a conviction.

But though the new courts still only deal with a fraction of the country's sexual-assault cases, most are achieving convictions in 75 to 90 percent of the cases they bring to trial. In regular courts, the conviction rate for sexual offenses is around 50 percent, says Ms. Majokweni. The average time to trial is six to nine months in the rape courts, compared to a year and a half or more for traditional courts.

Despite the successes, however, problems remain outside the courts. Untrained doctors and police often collect evidence incorrectly, and the country's DNA laboratories are overloaded and often take months or years to process evidence.

More on the way

Still, the government plans to roll out 36 more of these courts by the end of 2004. By 2010, it hopes all sexual offenses will be tried in special courts. "The success rates in these specialized courts is very good," says Lorna Jacklin, medical director of the Teddy Bear Clinic, which works in Soweto and in other, regular courts around Johannesburg. "But there are just not enough of them."

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