Pioneering hub for gender-based violence care and training launched in Stellenbosch – Adv Bonnie Currie-Gamwo

South Africa grapples with a crisis of gender-based violence, recording some of the world’s highest rates of violence against women and girls. To address the urgent need of sexual assault victims in the Cape, Professor Wolfgang Schöneberg and Dr Edwin Herzog spearheaded a collaboration with a group of stakeholders including the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). It has resulted in the establishment of the first-of-its-kind Stellenbosch GBV centre in Ida’s Valley, which opened its doors in February. Adv. Bonnie Currie-Gamwo, the Special Director of Public Prosecution: Sexual Offences and a pivotal figure within the GBV Leadership Group, sheds light on the escalating rates of GBV, despite numerous interventions, in an interview with Biznews. She highlights the diverse range of victims, spanning from children as young as six to individuals in their fifties and males, who have found solace and support within the newly opened centre. Currie-Gamwo emphasises the crucial role played by collaborative efforts between the private and state sectors in providing comprehensive care for victims of GBV, expressing her aspirations to replicate this model across South Africa.

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Highlights from the interview

Cases of GBV continue to rise in South Africa 

It’s sad but true that we have one of the highest levels of GBV in the country on the continent. Despite many interventions that have been crafted and implemented, there still seems to be a rise in the numbers annually. So much so that, again, two years ago, we crafted even more legislation to really combat GBV. We put in place very strict guidelines as to how you deal with a GBV matter when it comes to the court, the bail issues, and how domestic violence is dealt with.

One cannot underestimate how big the scourge is and the impact it has on our society as a whole, and in particular, our most vulnerable – our children and our women in our society.

Some Thuthuzela Care Centres see 2000 victims every single year

We have different stats for different reasons. What I can say to you is we look at, for example, the number of cases that are reported at the police stations will never be the same as the number of cases that go through the court system. It will never be the same as the number of people that visit a Tutuzela care centre. But we have, for example, from a Thuthuzela care centre perspective, we have in some of our TCCs where we see 2,000 victims every single year. That is a lot of victims that are entering our systems. And the reason for the disconnect in respect of the figures, quite simply, is because we know people report and they don’t want to continue with the matter.

Victims of GBV are probably some of the most traumatised victims you can find because often the perpetrator is someone they know. So there are various aspects of this case which, when one only looks at the statistics, it really does not tell you exactly what the scourge is. Many are not even reporting. Others who are reporting do not want to go through the court system. Those who are strong enough to go through the court system, midway through, they’ll tell you, ‘I can’t do this.’ So I’m always very careful when one speaks about statistics and allow the statistics that are being kept to be the only aspect one needs to look at. You cannot look at iton its own. There are just too many other factors that really play such a huge role in definitely saying, ‘This is the total of what GBV looks like in any given place.’

A multi-sector approach to have an impact on GBV in South Africa

I was invited to the GBV leadership group. They looked at different role players, different spheres within government, and outside government that were involved in GBV. I was quite honoured to be invited to be part of this group that really is a group of experts in the field of GBV. The beauty of it is that we come from different spheres. Some of us are from the police, some of us are from the government, some of us are not from the government, they’re from the private sector. We even have this foreign aspect to it as well. When we all sat together around a table, you can imagine the ideas that came up in the discussions that happened. 

It’s no surprise that we were able to come up with this GBV centre. It’s truly a culmination of what happens when you have a multi-sectoral collective of different people in the same room, but importantly, you share the same vision. You share the vision that you want to make an impact in GBV, not just a talk shop, not just ‘I want to do this,’ but you want to have an impact. Through this GBV centre, I do believe we’re going to have that impact. 

My role is that I am the National Head of the Sexual Offences and Community Affairs Unit of the National Prosecuting Authority. So my mandate is GBV and one of my mandates is that I must come up with best practices as to how we deal with GBV. One of the best practices that the unit I head up developed as far back as the year 2000 was the Thuthuzela Care Center.

The role of Thuthuzela Care Centres: A One-stop GBV centre for all gender-based violence offences

The Thuthuzela Center is this one-stop GBV centre with all the role players under one roof. We provide medical, psychosocial, and legal services to our victims who come in. Initially, when it started in the year 2000, it was only for sexual offences victims. But as of 2021, we now service all gender-based violence victims because we recognize that often you can’t differentiate between the sexual offences victim and the domestic. They are often the same people. And so we now offer the service to all gender-based violence victims under one roof. Why does it work? It’s completely victim-centred. Everything in the TCC, the Thuthuzela Center, caters for the victim, the safety of the victim, and the interest of the victim. So it’s victim-centred, but also importantly, it’s court-directed. That is where it differs a little bit from many of the other institutions that you have offering these types of services. That is why we have that legal service that is offered. The legal service is where a state advocate will consult with the victim and will make the matter trial-ready through a prosecutor-guided investigation.

Reducing the cycle times to speed up prosecutions

We also try to reduce the cycle times from the time that the matter is reported until the time it is prosecuted in court. Now through these services, we try to create what we believe is a survivor. For me, a survivor is an empowered victim. Yes, there’s this theory that all of them are survivors. I’m going to tend to disagree. I’m going to say if you have a victim of a violent act, they remain a victim until you’ve empowered them to become survivors. 

The centre, the Thuthuzela Care Center, Thuthuzela is in one of our indigenous languages, which means comfort. So that’s what we offer, a place of comfort. The Thuthuzela Center is the first of its kind, and we also now offer overnight facilities for our victims who can’t go back home.

Overnight facilities and training at the purpose-built centre in Stellenbosch since Feb 2024

We now have on-site overnight facilities to assist the victim of domestic violence or someone who is in fear for their life so that they don’t have to go back. Most of our victims that enter our centres are quite indigent and so they don’t have alternative places. This is the beauty of the centre that we can provide because of the space provided through this initiative. 

We have that overnight facility. The further beauty of the centre is that it’s the first one of its kind that will be hosted in a bigger GBV centre. So we have the Thuthuzela that is there, but we also have the overnight facilities and then we will have the training centres and of course the offices of the Ring for Peace Foundation. Through that initiative, we are going to be able to just work together and make such a huge impact in that community.

Why Stellebosch was chosen 

 If you know anything about Stellenbosch, it’s really a case of the haves and the have-nots. There are poor people in the Stellenbosch area, and many of them are from the outlying rural farming areas where gender-based violence is a huge problem, often connected to alcohol abuse and the like. And so where the centre is situated is actually very important in that it can and it will bring all of those communities together. Through the centre, we will be able to do training. We will be able to do even further empowerment, not only of the victims but of community groups that want to do better. 

We are able to host principals of schools where they are able to engage the children that they have under their care, but with the knowledge that we’ve been able to impart to them. Our legislation has changed dramatically in the past two years, Linda. There’s a need to empower everyone around, and very importantly, one of the key things that has changed is that there’s now a duty to report sexual offences of vulnerable groups. And so, whoever you are, if you become aware that a person who is designated a vulnerable group, which is primarily your children, your elderly, and also importantly your student, your student aged 25, Or below 25 who’s at a tertiary institution, the female students are now designated in this country as being vulnerable. So you know that there’s a big university in Stellenbosch.

Bringing the private and state sector together to fight gender-based violence

So again, it just all came together, the right aspects, you know, that we can address where the centre is located. So I foresee fabulous, fantastic work happening in the centre, knowledge empowerment, access for the victim, but very importantly, showing how the public and the private sector can come together, how different sectors can collaborate and bring the change that is needed in this fight to address gender-based violence in this country. 

The Thuthuzela Care Center has been operational as of 1 February this year. The rest of the centre as well as the overnight facility, the other aspects, we’re sort of doing a phased launch approach of the other aspects of the centre.

Phenomenal response from victims as young as six, up to 50 and males 

You must remember we’ve not launched the centre per se. So we’ve not gone out there and said, ‘This is the centre.’ This will be done hopefully in the coming months. The way the TCC operates is that it’s a collaboration. So we have the police’s Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences (FCS) unit which is the specialised GBV police unit of the South African Police Services.

 So they have actually started bringing all the victims that present there directly to the Thuthuzela Care Center. So we’ve had victims come during the day, we’ve had them come during the night, and there’s always been assistance for these victims when they enter.

The reaction has really been phenomenal. I think we’ve had young, young, six-year-olds, seven-year-olds, we’ve had 50-year-olds, we’ve had males come in. So the centre, I believe once we’ve launched, once we’ve taken the message of the Thuthuzela, the Stellenbosch Thuthuzela into the communities that it services, the numbers are going to increase phenomenally.

There’s a need for it. We’ve been proved right by the numbers that are already coming in. We’ve been proved right that there is and there was a need for a Stellenbosch Thuthuzela care centre. And as I indicated, I believe it will only go and become and be used even more by the communities, which is exactly what we want. It must happen. 

Scaling to the rest of South Africa: South Africa needs this type of model everywhere 

I would love to, but it is an expensive thing to do. It’s an expensive project. This was made possible purely because of the collaboration between the university, the Ring for Peace Foundation, MediClinic, and the National Prosecuting Authority. But I do believe that time is going to show and tell us that we need this type of model everywhere. For example, in a rural area, one of the biggest issues in a rural area is a place to do training, for example, for people to all gather. And so, yes, there’s a need for it, but it is expensive and it does require collaboration. 

This is also the first off-site facility, the first one that’s not in a hospital space. So all of our Thuthuzela centres traditionally are in hospital space. This one is not in the hospital space because A, there isn’t space in the public hospital that’s close by for what we wanted to happen. But that has sort of been a blessing in disguise because it allowed us to think out of the box and create what we’ve created, a flagship in the Stellenbosch area. But yes, show me the funding and I will be able to motivate where you will go next.

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