“Thuthuzela” is a Xhosa word meaning “comfort”. This is the name of a far-reaching response to rape management in South Africa that holds lessons for us in India at this time.

The Daily Maverick of South Africa reported on December 13, 2012 that research conducted in four provinces of the country showed that women had reported experiencing some form of violence perpetrated by men against them ranging from 36% in KwaZulu Natal to 77% in Limpopo. In this raging epidemic of sexual violence, the Thuthuzela centres offer a radical approach that seem to be showing results in the communities in which they operate.

Advocate Thoko Majokweni who as the Director of the Sexual Offences and Community Affairs Unit in the National Prosecuting Authority of South Africa led the initiative establishing the Thuthuzela approach. A forceful and dynamic senior government official, she considers the Thutuzelas a critical part of South Africa’s anti-rape strategy, “aiming to reduce secondary trauma for the victim, improve perpetrator conviction rates and reduce the lead time for finalizing cases”.

The first “Thutuzela” centre opened in the Soveto Township on the southern fringes of Johannesburg nearly a decade ago. Other centres have come up in communities where the incidence of rape is particularly high. They are linked to the efforts of South Africa to strengthen the implementation of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Offences Act. The government has set up Sexual Offences Courts staffed by dedicated teams of prosecutors, social workers, investigating officers, magistrates, health professionals and police. Many of these courts are located close to the Thutuzeala centres.

When I visited the first Thutuzeala centre at the Soveto Township about eight years ago, I was taken into an unmarked block within the general hospital in the Township. The anonymity of this location ensures that the risk of stigma to those coming to them is minimized. The victim coming in is received with care and consideration. Private space is made available where medical help is provided as soon as she arrives. Once the medical examination is completed, the victim is offered the opportunity to have a bath and change her clothes so that she feels cleansed. Officers of the investigating agency were co-located in the Thutuzeala centre then take the victim’s statement and start working with her to build the case for the prosecution.

Advocate Thoko continues: “At the heart of the success of the Thuthuzela approach is the professional medical and legal interface and a high degree of cooperation between victim and service providers from reporting through investigation and prosecution of the crime leading up to the conviction of the offender”. Apart from the conviction rates showing a marked increase, there has also been a sharp drop in the time taken in the court procedures. Advocate Thoko told UNICEF that the time taken to prosecute and convict perpetrators dropped from 3 to 5 years to “less than 6 months today.” UNICEF has been supporting efforts of the South African government to strengthen the Thutezeala interventions making them more child friendly for child victims of sexual violence and by assisting other countries in Africa and elsewhere to learn from the South African experiences.

We see quick responses to the national outrage in India on rape through opening of fast track courts in Delhi and other parts of the country. But enhancing penalties and opening additional courts by themselves will not help in countering the impunity with which the offence is committed. We have seen a recent news report that an average of 500 rapes was committed every year in Karnataka since 2006, but the number of convictions in 2011 was only four.

Thuthuzela shows us a way to arrest the impunity with which rapes are committed. In addition, it offers a humane and supportive environment for the survivor to cope with her trauma. It is possible for us to offer similar hospital based support for victims in all district hospitals in the country. However, this alone will not help. What we need to do is to make a difference in the mind-sets of everyone in the country that views women as subordinate and secondary. This is a much larger challenge in which each of us has a responsibility to overcome the baggage of patriarchy.

The author is a retired civil servant who also worked with UNICEF. He can be reached at gbalagopal.wayanad@gmail.com

More In: Comment | Opinion