What stops rape survivors from reporting?

2015-02-04

Official statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS) on reported sexual offences in South Africa have fluctuated over the last decade. Various research studies have shown that official sexual offences statistics constitute less than 10% of actual sexual offences committed in the country.

An important way to tackle rape is to improve the reporting rates to the police. However, barriers to reporting rape are complex and need to be better understood both by society and those working in the criminal justice system before they can be effectively broken down.

The onus to prevent sexual offences or reduce the rates of this category of crime should not be on the police. If the statistics on sexual offences weren’t seen as a reflection of police competence, we would be able to shift our focus from seeing the numbers as a performance management tool, to viewing them as a way of understanding and dealing with the problem of sexual violence in South Africa.

The statistics should give us the numbers under each sexual offence contained in current law – disaggregated by age and sex of victim, whether they were disabled, and so forth. The focus of the police should be on providing a quality service to the victims of sexual violence: this should be the criteria of their performance appraisal and bonuses.

The correct infrastructure (such as victim empowerment rooms and personnel) should not be confused with quality of service. The latter includes victim-friendly officers, officers who have not only been trained but have also passed competency tests, police officers having access to shelters and using interpreters.

Different categories of sexual offences victims need to be dealt with differently, which again speaks to the quality of police services. For mentally disabled people, are the police willing to take the time to get a proper statement that will stand up in court, and contact a facilitator with specialised knowledge if needed? Will they come to the victim’s house to take a statement? Will the guidelines drafted for disabled victims of sexual offences be followed? And, for undocumented migrants, are the police willing to overlook their citizenship status and investigate the crime? Are they willing to inform the victim of their rights in this country?

It was agreed that the most important measure to decrease barriers to reporting rape is to shift the focus of crime statistics of sexual offences from a performance management tool to useful data for informing policy intervention and prevention programmes. Along with this is the need to refocus attention on the quality of police services to victims of sexual violence. Developing and implementing of effective prevention programmes should not be at the expense of justice and response, as both are equally necessary in dealing with sexual violence.

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