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No justice for women in a patriarchal court system!

woman in dress holding sword figurine

If I tell you how many times I’ve had to defend my stance on the patriarchy to “well meaning “ and “learned” individuals, you will not believe me. Here is another exhibit. Bongeka sounds like a promising young woman who tried to do everything to rise above her circumstances, and yet still, it wasn’t enough.

Today is World Social Justice Day and there is still so much work to be done, all around the world, to end violence against women and girls. I have so many questions though rhetorical because I know the answers. How is it possible that with all the evidence in this case, the suspects were released? How is it that the suspect’s associates were allowed in court to taunt the victim’s families? How is it that Bongeka’s daughter wasn’t given the option to speak with a female officer who she felt could empathise with her and make her feel more comfortable? What kind of support was given to her to process this trauma as a young girl who is now orphaned?

Women are getting killed everyday and no justice is being given. The same men who are meant to protect us are the same men who are killing us.

Bongeka’s daughter

In fighting the patriarchy, part of the work that needs to be done is in building the right infrastructures for justice to be effectively served in such cases, and for support to be provided for survivors and those who are left behind. Far too many times, it appears the law, (which is in the custody of mostly men) is on the side of the perpetrator (who are mostly men), and not the victim (who are mostly women). When we say fight the patriarchy, it is so that we never have the ask the questions I posed above.

The court room is meant to be a safe space where the ills of our society are challenged and where justice is served for those who have been wronged. The duty of the court is to uphold the rights of the people and exercise the rule of law. However, in deeply hierarchical and patriarchal societies, the courts end up reinforcing androcentric values while ignoring all constitutional and legal provisions. Fighting for justice in patriarchal courts requires physical and emotional stamina!

There is a long history of patriarchal, male-dominated courts dismissing women’s concerns. Patriarchy shows up in court all day and everyday. Conscious and unconscious bias too are present, due to the number of men versus women judges, and the gender stereotyping in everyday courtroom practices. When a sexual assault survivor needs to think twice about what she wears for her court appearance, because her outfit may determine whether or not the judge believes her, we have a problem!

The problem when it comes to gender based violence cases reaching the courts is the way in which police handle the cases. When it comes to holding perpetrators to account, we have to ensure that police understand the importance of collecting the right evidence and also the way in which police treat women. We have seen cases where women will go to report a rape at the police station and get raped by the police officers.

Shenilla Mohamed, Executive Director, Amnesty International, South Africa

In June last year, after a lot of campaigning from women’s organisations and advocacy groups, the UK government announced a complete overhaul of the family courts to protect survivors of domestic abuse. This reform included special protections for victims in court, stronger powers for judges to prevent abusers repeatedly dragging their victims back to court or cross-examining their victims in court in an attempt to intimidate them. It also suggests a new investigative process to reduce the chances of abusers and their victims having to meet in court which can cause conflict. This is not to say that the system is perfect. Far from it. There is still a lot of work to be done as evidenced by the outrage after the recent sentencing of Anthony Williams who murdered his wife Ruth 5 days into lockdown. He allegedly blamed the pandemic which had only been in place for 5 days! It is reported that he told police he ‘snapped’ and ‘choked the living day lights’ out of her, after a period of depression and anxiety about the pandemic. Again, we were 5 days in! The judge in making his decision agreed that the perpetrator’s “mental state was severely affected at the time”. He was found not guilty of murder and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment imprisonment after admitting to “manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility.” Yet, here we are as frontline workers, campaigners, activists and advocates trying constantly to remind people that there is no excuse for abuse. Not even mental health! 

When I see the stories of women like Ruth Williams unfold, I am reminded that the court systems in many former British colonies are some of the longstanding relics of our colonial history. What good is celebrating independence every year, when we are still holding on to broken colonial infrastructures, physical and otherwise? These are archaic systems that have never been thoroughly reviewed or updated post colonial rule. Nothing is more preposterous to me than seeing an African barrister with a blonde wig – one of the most glaringly obvious symbols of colonialism but I digress. Unfortunately, the leaders who have dared to question this end up getting silenced. When you have a situation where the decision makers and power holders are mostly men who are also complicit in perpetrating violence against women and young girls, gender equity, ending said violence and giving women who fall victim justice, are not included in their agenda.

It is a long road to any kind of justice for women like Popi, Bongeka and even Ruth. The courts have already shown that their lives do not matter to them. By right this should be a no justice no peace type of situation with both women and men screaming on the streets that enough is enough. Yet business continues as usual. Soon, the media will forget these women and we will move on to new hashtags. The fact that associates of the suspects in Popi and Bongeka’s case felt emboldened enough to go to court and say out loud that they know they will get bail because they have money, while the families of the victims sat there helpless and powerless, indicates the system that women are up against. The fact that they were right and the case was thrown out of court for “lack of evidence” despite there being no plausible explanation for why the suspects were in possession of the women’s property or why the women’s blood was found in a vehicle that was connected to the suspects is beyond me. The fact that Anthony Williams boldly stated to police that he ‘choked the living day lights’ out of his wife in a fit of rage and then had the nerve to claim mental health as a defence, coupled with the fact that the judge empathised and excused his behaviour because his “mental state was severely affected at the time” is infuriating! This fight is tough and there are times when it seems there is no end in sight, mainly due to the apathy and lack of interest from those who have the power to bring about the end or at least justice, and the fatigue and helplessness of those who have been trying. But we must never give up the fight.

Featured Image Fact Check: Lady Justice – I find it ironic that the embodiment of justice is a woman! Yet even in ancient Rome, patriarchy was rife and women could not vote or hold political or public office. Lest we forget the symbols attributed to her; the blindfold which represents impartiality to wealth, power, gender or race, the scales on which she weighs evidence and measures the strength of a case, and the sword which implies that justice can be swift and final. This ancient symbolism dates back to Greek mythology in which Themis known for being “open-minded and clear-sighted”, was revered as the Goddess of Justice and Law.

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