By Dr M Weideman and Ms Lynne Cawood
Despite having one of the most progressive and inclusive constitutions in the world, South Africa continues to struggle with gender-based violence against women. The World Health Organization indicates that one in four women in South Africa is subject to intimate partner violence while Amnesty International claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted an escalation in gender-based violence in the country.
To address this issue, Childline Gauteng has partnered with the South African Solidarity Fund to conduct empowerment research towards the improvement of Criminal Justice System (CJS) outcomes for adult and child survivors of gender-based and related violence and/or abuse.
Childline Gauteng is a counselling service provider to vulnerable people and communities. In addition, the organization advocates for community development towards the actualization of the political and socio-economic rights enshrined in the South African constitution, seeks to empower individuals and communities and contribute to their positive development, offers face-to-face and telephonic (through a 24-hour toll-free helpline) counselling services, focuses on establishing therapeutic relationships and identifying the emotional, social and familial factors that affect physical safety and mental health, refers individuals to relevant government departments or stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System and utilizes a variety of evidence-based theories and practices.
The Solidary Fund was established in 2020 as a public benefit organization in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Fund is financed through contributions and donations from government, the private sector, civil society organizations, and individuals. It funds activities to inter alia support economic recovery for small and medium enterprises, accelerate the health response to the pandemic, support humanitarian efforts and mobilize citizens to address and overcome COVID-19. The Solidarity Funds also seeks to respond to what the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, called the “second pandemic” and “the war against women”, exemplified by exceedingly high rates of violence against women and children in the country which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the necessary measures taken to contain it.
In framing the empowerment methodology for the research, Childline Gauteng built on some of the organization’s key strengths as a provider of counselling to vulnerable populations and developed supportive methods of engagement. These include (1) extensive consultation, engagement, human rights education, and information sessions with survivors who already have established relationships with Childline social workers to develop the methodology; (2) appointing highly experienced social workers to conduct in-depth interviews with survivors who volunteer to share their experience; (3) ensuring participant safety and anonymity; (4) training experienced social workers in research methods, research ethics and interviewing techniques; (5) providing debriefing sessions and ongoing professional counselling services to survivors who volunteer to participate in the study and (6) developing recommendations for improvements to the Criminal Justice System from the perspectives of survivors.
It should be noted that no children will be interviewed during the study, rather discussions will take place between the social workers and the adults who assisted affected children through Criminal Justice System processes.
Preparations for the full implementation of the study started in May 2021 and have now been completed. These include exploratory interviews with subject experts, a comprehensive situational analysis, the appointment of a (voluntary) reference group representing academics, subject experts, and the various stakeholders in the Criminal Justice System (including police services, the medico-legal fraternity, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Commission on Gender Equality) to enhance the quality of the study. Childline is currently awaiting final approval from the Research Ethics Committee of the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, after which engagement with the volunteer participants will commence.
The hopes of the participating partners are that the study will give voice to adult and child survivors of violence and abuse, contribute to the development of a more victim-centered Criminal Justice System that responds directly to the articulated needs and experiences of survivors and test an empowerment methodology for engagement to reduce (or eliminate) the possibility of secondary traumatization that can result from social research involving marginalized, vulnerable or traumatized individuals and communities.