However, as aptly stated by the United Nations (the UN), every day should be Human Rights Day and each one of us, everywhere, at all times, is entitled to the full range of human rights. This is particularly true in relation to women and children, and the terrible violations some have to endure, often at the hands of those closest to them.

Our Bill of Rights enshrines the rights of everyone in our country and affirms the fundamental values of human dignity, equality and freedom. Accordingly and in terms of section 7(2) of the Constitution, “the State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights“. This constitutional requirement is of particular importance to women and children in need of protection by the criminal justice system against violence – whether physical, sexual or psychological. It is precisely when the hype and frenzy of awareness campaigns have died down and public interest is no longer focused on these crimes that women and children must be able to rely on the criminal justice system – and on individual law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

Violence against women and children are human rights violations of the worst kind and frequently entrenched in, and reinforced by cultural practices and social values. Sadly, the criminal justice system and individual law enforcement officials and prosecutors are not immune to those entrenched societal practices and values. Hence, quite often, law enforcement officers and prosecutors do not regard or treat violence against women and children with the same seriousness, as they would regard other types of crime.

Although the government – within the framework of legislation, policies, procedures and practices – may ably develop mechanisms to respond to violence against women and children, it remains up to individual police officers and prosecutors to implement those responses. This is exactly where the State fails to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights. Usually, specialised units and officers are not to blame. In fact, they are well trained and caring. It is, however, quite a different state of affairs when it comes to the average ‘bobby on the beat’, so to speak. The challenge is therefore to empower and equip the average criminal justice officer to respond – and respond promptly and in the appropriate manner – to incidents of violence against women and children. This requires that criminal justice officials of all units (not only specialised units) receive regular and institutionalised human rights training to sensitise them to gender and child related issues. It also requires implementation of appropriate policies among different criminal justice agencies to ensure coordinated, consistent and effective responses to violence perpetrated against women and children by personnel within those criminal justice agencies. Besides, it requires a change in the attitude of individual criminal justice officers who foster, justify or tolerate violence against women and children, and it requires public scrutiny and sanction if they fail to change.

Only when police officers and prosecutors are properly trained and working in an environment in which a human rights culture is valued and promoted, will they be able to assist and support those women and children subjected to violence, in a manner that is sensitive and responsive to those victims’ needs. Moreover, it is only when every day of the year is seen as a Human Rights Day that every person – including women and children – will come to enjoy the rights and freedoms promised by our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

By Adv Johan Kruger, Director: Centre for Constitutional Rights

Photo credit: UN 

For comment on statement:
Adv Johan Kruger: Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights
Phone: 27 21 (0) 930 3622

Megan Dick: Communications Officer, FW de Klerk Foundation
Phone: 27 21 (0) 930 3622