Partnership with UNODC set to transform non-custodial measures for women offenders in South Africa

UNODCmainJustice and Correctional Services Deputy Ministers, Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa and John Jeffery, addressed a multi-disciplinary workshop in Cape Town, facilitated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), on the validation of a quick reference guide on ‘a Gender Responsive, Non-Custodial Measures for Women in conflict with the law in South Africa’.

In March 2020, the UNODC published a ‘Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures’ which seeks to provide support and guidance on taking steps to ensure that women in conflict with the law are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily and that detention is used as a measure of last resort, based on the acknowledgment that incarceration can be detrimental to women and their children.

Speaking via video conference, UNODC Consultant, Corina Giacomello, said the ‘United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders’ were adopted in December 2010, providing states with a clear orientation on how to take into account women’s needs and life stories in the criminal justice and prison system. The document highlighted that female prisoners are a vulnerable group, with specific needs and requirements; further noting that many existing prison facilities worldwide are designed primarily for male prisoners, and that a number of female offenders do not pose a risk to society and as with all offenders, their imprisonment may render social reintegration more difficult,” she said.

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Deputy Minister Holomisa in his opening address, said that as the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster, it was critical to develop a coherent strategy that addresses distinct gendered pathways that contribute to bringing women in conflict with the law, such as prior victimization, gender-based violence and poverty. He added that South Africa takes cognisance of the high number of gender-based violence (GBV) incidences and that the Department is heeding the call of the President to develop a policy framework on GBV.

“The majority of women sentenced to incarceration in South Africa are serving short-term sentences. There is thus a greater potential for successful rehabilitation through alternative sentences. Regardless of the nature of their crimes, research has consistently proven that a considerable percentage of women offenders in Africa were victims of various forms of violence, mental health problems, and alcohol or drugs dependency even before their incarceration,” he said.

According to the Deputy Minister Jeffery, there is a need to look at how the criminal justice system treats women who are in conflict with the law and to look to what degree the criminal justice system is gender responsive.

“If one used the criminal justice system as one long chain of various stakeholders, like SAPS, Justice, legal aid, prosecutors, DCS, magistrates, it becomes evident that each and every one of us has a role to play in making our criminal justice system more gender responsive. Many incarcerated women have committed non-violent and victimless crimes such as drugs, suggesting that incarceration may not be the most appropriate, nor proportionate response.

He went on to say that in South Africa, GBV and femicide has been declared a pandemic, and therefore, the impact of GBV should not be underestimated in women who in conflict with the law.

The stakeholders also discussed in detail the gender responsive measures for pre-trial, pre-sentencing and pre-conviction, along with sentencing, post-sentencing and reintegration into communities. The National Prosecuting Authority noted the importance of creating an understanding of what non-custodial sentencing is and identified education as a critical element which is needed in communities.

The UNODC emphasized that the success of the implementation of the reference guide depends on strong leadership, and praised the Deputy Ministers for demonstrating strong political support for the efforts, and pledged to continue to work closely with South Africa to see the project through.

With the backing of the Department, the final leg of the workshop, saw the establishment of a core task team which will coordinate a pilot project for the implementation of gender-responsive non-custodial measure for women in the Western Cape, with a specific focus on Athlone in the Cape Flats.

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