A new project is seeking alternatives to prison for women who commit petty crimes.
It is based on research that shows women who commit these crimes are mostly gender-violence victims who are struggling to survive.
The project is an initiative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and is being championed by Caroline Peters, the founder of Callas Foundation, a non-profit organisation in Bridgetown.
It also involves Legal Aid South Africa, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the Department of Correctional Services and the judiciary.
Interventions on Non-Custodial Measures for Women in Conflict with the Law (WICL), as the project is known, will be based at the Athlone Magistrate’s Court and will until June next year, when it will be evaluated, and possibly rolled out to other provinces.
Speaking at the launch, on Tuesday November 30, Advocate Michelle Adams, the acting Western Cape Regional Court president, said magistrates were most often presented with the crime a woman had committed but not the reasons behind it.
“We are not given pertinent information. Don’t judge someone if you don’t know the options they had. It takes a village to raise a child, and, in this case, the child is the pilot project and the village is all the stakeholders,” she said.
Advocate Bonnie Currie Gamwo, special director of public prosecutions in the NPA’s Sexual Offences and Community Affairs (SOCA) Unit, cautioned however that the project would not be a “free-for-all”.
“While it may appear odd as the NPA to try and keep people out of prison, I believe in justice and fairness. For this project to achieve, justice and fairness must permeate. It should not just be about keeping women out of prison. We can only mediate or deviate instead of prison, with appropriate cases, as it is not a free-for-all. There are times where women who are in abusive relationships make bad decisions. If this project is successful, I would say let’s roll it out to other courts and provinces.”
Ms Peters, who runs a feeding project from her home in Bridgetown, said that with Covid-19, many – like her organisation – had responded immediately to the food crisis. However, the Callas Foundation had soon evolved into being more than just a place to go for a meal – it had also become a refuge for women, which had led to the organisation starting a support group.
“What we found is that women who misuse substances are more often in violent relationships. With the hard lockdown, and limited ways of getting their next fix, the violence perpetrated against women escalated. I am passionate about advocating for young women who are being abused. I am that young woman, for I too, was gang-raped. This initiative is for non-custodial measures for women who deserve this, and not those who committed violent crime and are a danger to themselves or society. I am super excited that we are launching this in Athlone,” Ms Peters said.
Dr Linda Naidoo, from UNODC’s Regional Office for Southern Africa, said gender violence was a “key pathway” to women’s imprisonment, and imprisonment harmed the woman, her children and the community.
She added that women who ended up on the wrong side of the law were often there because of gender violence and substance abuse. There was a lack of drug-rehabilitation programmes specifically for women, she added.
“Since the year 2000, the population of women in prison has increased significantly. This (project) has been a two-year journey of research where we looked at interventions and policies, among others,” Dr Naidoo said.
Social Development MEC Sharna Fernandez said it was important to know when imprisonment was appropriate and when it was not.
“We all need to join hands to address the underlying issues, so that we can help women in conflict with the law to turn their lives around. Community engagement is also key.”
Zelna Jansen, a consultant who works closely with the Callas Foundation, said the NPA and Legal Aid SA would identify certain cases for the project.
“We have draft monitoring tools, and by March next year, we will give feedback on the successes and challenges, and the pilot will finish in June.”