Responsibility for pursuing charges is not on the survivor'

06 June 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Assoc Prof Sinegugu Duma chairs UCT's newly established Sexual Assault Response Team.
Assoc Prof Sinegugu Duma chairs UCT's newly established Sexual Assault Response Team.

Five weeks after a student was accused of sexual harassment in a UCT residence, he had still not vacated his room. This flies in the face of UCT policy, says Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma, who directs the newly established Sexual Assault Response Team (SART).

When a student in residence is accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, the immediate first action is to move that student to a different residence, says Duma. But a botched statement delayed the serving of the protection order, and was the first in a number of frustrating admin bungles that allowed the alleged perpetrator to still roam freely in the residence he was required to vacate, says Duma.

“How must the survivor feel if she sees him?” asks Duma, who researches sexual assault in UCT's residence system.

This case illustrates one of the most glaring problems that SART has identified since its formation on 7 April – unreliable first responses to complaints of sexual assault and harassment. From wardens advising rape survivors to “take a warm bath” before going for an examination at a hospital, to one warden taking it upon himself to mediate a case of sexual harassment internally – considering the matter resolved when the perpetrator expressed remorse – one of SART's core missions is to train first responders to follow due process.

Duma sums up SART's mandate thus: “Responding to and preventing sexual violence on campus, guided by the principle of survivor-centred, comprehensive and compassionate care.”

SART won't replace any service that UCT currently offers, stresses Duma.

“We review cases that go to DISCHO [the Discrimination and Harassment Office], and look at trends and gaps in the services that we provide,” she says.

Since January, SART has reviewed 16 cases that were brought before DISCHO. Twelve were confirmed as rapes (three of which were related to the Rhodes Memorial attacks) and one was a case of sexual harassment. Extrapolating this to the national trend in which only one in 25 rapes is reported is an even more chilling thought, says Duma.

It wasn't just the broader issues of poor procedural adherence that stymied proper care for survivors, says Duma. Logistical anomalies, such as requiring a survivor to find their way to Victoria Hospital in Constantia for an examination and follow-ups – often in the dead of night – were major spanners in the works.

In addition to training first responders and other targeted groups, SART has three more working groups responsible for organising prevention and awareness campaigns, communication, and the review, revision and development of policies.

“The policies we have are older than the Sexual Offences Act – and even if they were developed at the same time, there has never been a process to check whether our policies speak to the Act, and how we could marry the two,” says Duma.

More working groups might emerge as needs arise, says Duma.

Hybrid model

Globally, two types of response teams against sexual violence in institutions and communities are employed. The first are known as sexual assault response teams, which are staffed mainly by professionals and provide an immediate, reactive intervention. Then there are coordinated community response teams, which might be staffed by concerned individuals with particular skill sets that join forces to put preventative measures in place. SART draws on both models, explains Duma.

Do survivors need to press charges?

An oft-cited stumbling block to legal recourse is that the onus rests on survivors to press charges against alleged assailants. Not so, says Duma.

“Once a survivor has reported a case, the university needs to take it upon itself to pursue charges against the perpetrator,” says Duma. After careful consideration of UCT policy, Duma confirmed that survivors needed only to make a statement, beyond which it is the university's responsibility to press charges, in the same way that a public trial is the state versus the perpetrator.

Whether the survivor chooses to then step forward as a witness is a different matter, says Duma.

“What it means is that we need to go back to the university community and in addition to talking about prevention, talk about what this means to the university. People need to know that the responsibility for pursuing charges is not on the survivor,” says Duma.

Survivor-centred response

“We need to know what the survivors need,” says Duma.

To this end, Duma has been attending events like UCT Speaks Back and a debate organised by UCT's Black Academic Caucus, where survivors have shared their experiences publicly. She also implores students and staff to contact SART directly via email.

Duma and Giselle Warton of UCT's Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) are currently the point-people for SART, although 16 people have officially come on board since the 7 April constituting meeting. These include representatives from the student body, academic staff, Rape Crisis, Campus Protection Services, the South African Police Service and Victoria Hospital.

The door is open for everybody that is interested in assisting to come forward, says Duma, adding that many people have already volunteered in a range of capacities.

It's still tough going, as Duma and Warton juggle SART work with full-time jobs at the university. There are plans to develop a budget for SART, although they have not yet been assigned dedicated office space or working hours.

“The challenge for now is time and resources,” says Duma. “We do SART work over and above everything else.”

Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Michael Hammond.

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