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RAPE CASE WITHDRAWALS
GENDER RESEARCH & ADVOCACY PROJECT

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Complainants request withdrawals in more than one-third of all rape cases in Namibia. The Gender Research and Advocacy Project at the Legal Assistance Centre uncovered this fact in its extensive 2006 study on rape cases in Namibia.

To understand the reasons why so many cases are withdrawn, we conducted a follow-up study on the issue of case withdrawals. This is a difficult topic to explore, and the follow-up study took over a year to complete.  Researchers from our team collected information from focus group discussions and personal interviews in 6 different regions.

The people we spoke to volunteered a total of 78 different reasons for rape case withdrawals. As one of the participants said “it’s not any one reason that causes a woman to withdraw her rape case, it’s the whole process”.

But the most frequently-cited reason for case withdrawal was, as we suspected, alternate resolution of the matter by means of compensation.  We found that compensation for rape can take different forms.  For example, in Ongwediva compensation is most often paid in the form of livestock, with the intervention of a traditional leader. In Keetmanshoop, compensation was more likely to be paid in cash as a result of negotiations between families.

It is easy to understand why some complainants might prefer to resolve rapes by means of compensation. Our criminal justice system currently offers the victim very little in the way of support or compensation, aside from the satisfaction of seeing a criminal put behind bars.  Unlike a criminal case which can drag on for years, compensation is speedy and private, and it can give the rape complainant a sense that concrete reparation has been made as well as providing welcome financial assistance to the person who has suffered the wrong.

So what is wrong with resolving a rape case this way, you might ask? The problem is that complainants are sometimes pressured into accepting compensation against their will, or sometimes not even involved in the decision. Some women accept compensation because of family pressure, or because they fear that the rapist may harm them.  In such cases this choice is not really a choice at all. Others turn to compensation simply because of poverty; as one participant explained, “a lot of women, they need money for paying the school fees of their children”.

While some people see compensation as a respected and legitimate method for resolving a criminal matter, others perceive the acceptance of compensation for a rape as devaluing the seriousness of the crime and even the woman herself.   Some viewed it as “buying” the victim’s right to prosecute her case, or even buying the right to rape her.

Of course, one of the biggest concerns is that compensation does little to prevent repeat rapes since it allows the rapist to walk free. Around the world, studies have shown that rapists have a particular tendency to repeat their crimes. And in our study, too, we were told of situations where rapists went on to rape again after their first or second victims withdrew their cases.

We urge police and prosecutors to take a tough line against those who attempt to coerce victims to withdraw their cases, which is a form of obstruction of justice.

The next most commonly-cited reasons for rape case withdrawals are family pressure and shame – a sure sign that families and communities are not giving rape victims the support they need and deserve.  As a nation are we still blaming the victims for being raped?

The next set of reasons point to failures in some aspects of service delivery.  For example, one common concern is threats of physical harm.  If an accused rapist who is out on bail is making such threats, this is a basis for revoking bail. If the threat is coming from someone other than the rapist, such as a friend or a family member of the rapist, it is still a crime – this would constitute obstruction of justice.   In either case, a credible threat to hurt someone can also be dealt with through a charge of assault. The law provides options to address situations where intimidation occurs, but in practice rape complainants are still being frightened. Clearly there is a need for rape complainants to have better information on what to do if they receive threats, and a need for prompt and effective follow-up if such threats are reported to police or prosecutors.

Some women reported fears that the rape case will drag on too long, or that they will go through the trauma of a court case and then find that there was not enough evidence for a conviction. These factors point to a need for prompter investigation and prosecution. And again, rape complainants need more information – information about what to expect in court, about the realistic chances for a successful prosecution and about the provisions for vulnerable witnesses which can make the court experience less uncomfortable for them. 

Some people also expressed a lack of trust in the system – they felt that prosecutors might not try as hard as private defence lawyers to win the case or that police or prosecutors might be bribed to “help out” people that they know.  Some improved public relations might be in order here – letting people know where to complain if they feel that something irregular has happened, and getting more publicity for the safeguards which are already in place to prevent corruption. 

A rape complainant who proceeds with his or her case is performing a service to society at large, and needs our support and assistance.  Imagine reporting a traumatic crime of an intimate nature, and how hard it must be to have to describe what happened to the police and again in front of strangers in a courtroom. Imagine that the rapist is someone from your own small community, and the community or even your own family blames you for what happened.

This is why we decided to launch this report at the Woman and Child Protection Unit – it is not a fancy venue with carpets and air conditioning, but this is where a person who has been raped will come. It is here that the service provision will start. The drama we just saw gave us a powerful snapshot of the reality of rape. We wanted to try to help you imagine how much a person in this situation needs support, right away and even more so in the weeks and months to come.

Over 1500 cases of rape or attempted rape are reported each year in Namibia, meaning that literally thousands of women are affected by rape. We as a society can do more to help them.

One of the key recommendations in the report is that government and civil society should work together to establish sustainable victim support programmes which can assist complainants before and after the resolution of their rape cases.  Focus group participants indicated that most women know what basic steps to take in the immediate aftermath of a rape – yet few women know how to proceed after the case has been reported, and have no idea where to turn for help in the months and years between the reporting of the case and its ultimate conclusion.  Here, we are letting them down.

We also suggest that prosecutors should be assigned to rape cases at an early stage, and ensure that complainants receive ongoing information about the case and about victim-friendly courts (where these are available) and other options for reducing the trauma of a court appearance.

We need to expand counselling services tied to the Woman and Child Protection Units, so that a social worker, counsellor or community survivor supporter is assigned to every rape complainant at the time the docket is opened.  We also suggest that requiring the signature of a social worker to finalise a rape complainant’s withdrawal statement, as a mechanism to guard against intimidation.

There is a need for more shelters, or other safety nets for rape complainants who are afraid to continue with their cases because of pressure at home or threats of harm from the rapist or his family.   We know that this is something which the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare is already concerned about, and we urge government to make sufficient funds available for more shelters.

We urge traditional leaders to refuse to sanction exchanges of compensation that are arranged without the personal involvement and unpressurised agreement of the rape victim, and we suggest that the Law Reform and Development Commission might even consider enacting a law specifically prohibiting “coercive compensation” – to target rapists or anyone who is pressuring complainants to accept money for withdrawing charges.

Civil society needs to design counselling programmes which connect willing rape complainants with one another for mutual support.  We know that Lifeline-Childline is already making exciting efforts to make their counselling services more accessible, while Women’s Solidarity provides tremendous support for rape survivors. This is the kind of effort that needs to be supported and expanded. 

Download

Pamphlet: Withdrawing a Rape Case - Are you Making the Right Decision?

Available in English, Oshiwambo, Ojtiherero and Afrikaans

Other Related Publications (PDF)

Fact sheet: Basic Facts on the Combating of Rape Act

Available in English, Oshwambo, Otjiherero and Afrikaans.

Pocket Guide: The Combating of Rape Act

Available in English, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero and Afrikaans.

Read the Complete Act
Other Related Webpages

 

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