Victim Friendly Courts empower Sexual and Gender Based Violence victims
Victim Friendly Courts have separation rooms where survivors give their testimonies and are protected from re-traumatisation
Senior magistrate Fadzai Mthombeni has handled some of the most harrowing cases of sexual gender-based violence in different parts of Zimbabwe over the past 15 years.
Mthombeni, a regional magistrate based in Harare, handles cases in the Victim Friendly Court (VFC) system designed to protect vulnerable witnesses, who often testify in cases of sexual abuse.
While stationed in Chivhu in May this year, the magistrate, who has also presided over VFC cases in Bulawayo, saw first-hand the tremendous risks some victims of sexual abuse face in their quest for justice when she handled a complex rape case.
“The case involved an 11-year-old girl who was raped by her stepfather, who is a traditional healer,” Mthombeni said.
“The suspect threatened everyone in the family. The mother didn’t want to help the victim until she disclosed the abuse to a maid, who informed her biological father in Masvingo.
“When the father intervened, the traditional healer threatened him with death and five days after he testified in court, the father passed away.
“A sister in law stepped in, but she lost consciousness while testifying until the suspect offered to rub her with some snuff in court. It was scary and weird.”
The traditional healer was eventually jailed, and Mthombeni said the case illustrated the amount of fear perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence can instil in their victims in ways that can hinder justice delivery.
Victim Friendly Courts have “changed the face of the delivery system, especially for children.”
VFCs have separation rooms where survivors give their testimonies and are protected from re-traumatisation.
Their key features include a closed-circuit television for capturing the survivor’s statement and an intermediary who guides and supports the survivor throughout the court process.
The 22 regional courts dotted across the country are used as VFCs in Zimbabwe.
UNICEF, with support from Sweden through the Child Protection Fund, the EU through the Spotlight Initiative and other donors, has been supporting the setting up and running of VFCs in the country for the past ten years.
Mthombeni, who has 26 years of experience in Zimbabwe’s justice delivery system as a magistrate, said VFCs have “changed the face of the delivery system, especially for children.”
She said VFCs empowered victims as they were handled privately and ensured witnesses were available for court sittings through logistical support such as transport provision.
“It is a system that caters for both the victim and the offender,” she said.
“The victims are protected from re-traumatisation, and the offenders get justice if the victims give truthful testimonies.
“We treat them equally, and when dealing with offenders, the system allows us to link them with service providers, especially when it’s a child offender.
“Justice is not only about punishing the offender, but it is also about rehabilitation.”
Giving a voice to the voiceless
Francis Mutema, the VFCs coordinator in the Chief Magistrate’s office, said the system was a “bastion of survivor centred gender-based violence responses.”
“Our duty is to give a voice to the voiceless,” Mutema said.
“As you know, gender-based violence is about power, and the victims are vulnerable members of society, such as children and women.
“The system is meant to protect survivors while ensuring justice is done.
“We don’t want survivors of gender-based violence to be re-traumatised, and we do this by removing them from the ordinary courtroom.
“The system is designed to protect the survivor by moderating the language from the accused so that the child can understand what is being said.”
He said justice is done to survivors when they can freely recount what happened to them, while offenders benefit from truthful testimonies.
Stronger together, better together
Mutema hailed the support the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) received from UNICEF to set up and equip VFCs nationwide.
He said they were in the process of setting up a second VFC at the Rottenrow Magistrate Court, an indication that the system was working.
“Our victim friendly system mantra is stronger together, better together,” he said.
“Apart from the support with equipment, we have mural paintings in the room and furniture that we got through UNICEF, which make the separation rooms child-friendly
“We get support in terms of refreshments for the victims.
“Sometimes they are hungry and must be fed after travelling long distances to get justice.
“We also have toys that include ordinary dolls and what are called anatomically correct dolls that help children to identify body parts while testifying.”
The JSC has also received support to roll out various training manuals, including the child witness training programmes for court officials, regional magistrates and interpreters who man the VFCs. These trainings enhance the capacity of judicial officers in providing child-friendly and gender-sensitive justice.
On average, the 22 VFCs across the country handle an average of 2 500 cases annually.
Mthombeni said there was a need for more support for victims in remote areas to access the VFCs as some were discouraged by long distances. They have to travel hence the urgency in decentralising the Victim Friendly Courts.
“It is a system that must be supported,” she added. “It has changed the face of the justice delivery system in the country.”