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Restorative justice offers some alternatives to addressing gender-based violence

The 16 Days of Activism Against Violence Against Women started on 25 November. The emphasis of this annual campaign is behavioural change to stop endemic levels of abuse against the women and children of our country and worldwide. Mike Batley introduces the concept of restorative justice as an opportunity for offenders to recognise the hurt they caused and take measures to change their actions.

Shocking, devastating accounts of women and children experiencing violence are currently featuring more prominently than usual in the news cycles. South Africa is participating in the annual UN campaign 16 Days of Activism against Violence against Women. This also forms part of the Faith Action to End domestic violence 70 days campaign.

A few weeks ago, spotlight.africa documented Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical (see here and here). Although this document received criticism for its failure to use inclusive language and its lack of attention to issues affecting women, including gender-based violence, I was struck by the calls to dialogue and human encounter that run throughout the text.

Restorative justice dialogue and mediation are a specific expression of this concept and provide a practical, if under-utilised response to the horror of gender-based violence (GBV).

Why consider restorative justice as a response to this scourge?

WATCH — Restoring Justice: Repairing the Harm After Sexual Assault // Gretchen Casey, TedxUF

Gretchen Casey, in the challenging and moving TEDx talk above, speaks as both a rape survivor and the director of an organisation that advocates for the use of restorative justice services. Casey explains that restorative justice focuses on the harm that results from wrongdoing and on its impact on people and relationships.  

A restorative justice process is a meeting attended by the victim, the offender and anyone else who has been affected by the incident. Led by a trained facilitator it is both voluntary and safe. Casey highlights four issues around which this meeting revolves: a description of the incident, listening to and acknowledging the impact of the harmful behaviour, discussing how to address the harm, and exploring how to prevent this from recurring.

Restorative justice focuses on the harm that results from wrongdoing and on its impact on people and relationships.

Restorative justice invites people to examine the requisite behaviour for addressing guilt and the support required if harm is to be dealt with. Crucially, someone who has caused harm should be invited to increase their capacity to express regret, to extend empathy and repair harm. They also need the opportunity to face the trauma, the violation and the loss of safety and trust that they caused for the person they harmed. The convergence of these principles and the dynamics of accepting responsibility, of confession, repentance and making right that are central to the Gospel is clear.

For Casey, the need for restorative justice is obvious. In the US context, as in South Africa, the number of women who experience sexual and other violence is enormous – research[1] indicates that between 25% and 40% of South African women have experienced sexual and/or physical intimate- partner violence in their lifetime. The overwhelming majority of these women know their perpetrators. Reporting rates, however, remain low, with convictions in both the United States and South Africa not rising above 10%.[2]

In view of this, she asks, how much is the criminal justice system contributing to safety and to holding perpetrators accountable? None of this negates our continued efforts to make the criminal justice system more effective. However, Casey’s point is that, in the face of this reality, we should not overlook, and be prepared to explore, other options. Imagine’, she challenges, ‘we can help build empathy and accountability in many offenders by inviting them to alleviate harm’. If we don’t, we are responsible for denying them the opportunity to grow as human beings.

‘We can help build empathy and accountability in many offenders by inviting them to alleviate harm’.

Gretchen Casey

This can be done in several different ways and at different points in the criminal justice system. Victims in South Africa have the right to meet with their perpetrator prior to release on parole and to state their view on the appropriateness of parole.

Similarly, a person (usually a woman) who is experiencing violence at the hands of her partner can approach the courts for a protection order. At the Restorative Justice Centre, we currently offer dialogue as a possibility at this point, or when the order has been violated. This is offered in conjunction with a group for perpetrators. We are also working towards offering the possibility of dialogue to survivors of childhood abuse, who may, for many reasons, never have laid a complaint against the perpetrator.

Much has been written in international academic discourse about the contentiousness of using restorative justice to respond to GBV. Given the ongoing accounts of horrific violence we witness each year and historical precedents in both law and society that has often seen GBV as a ‘private matter’, it is right that we are sceptical. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines intimate partner violence (IPV) as the most common form GBV. IPV includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse and controlling behaviour by a current or former intimate partner or spouse, and can occur in heterosexual or same-sex couples. This broad definition emphasises the range of behaviours at issue and the degree of severity they can take.

In contrast with our tendency to view perpetrators as ‘monsters’, IPV arises out of a combination of individual, relational and societal factors and is highly correlated with depression and poor impulse control.[3] This complexity indicates that these risk factors can be assessed and managed in an individualised, personal way so that interventions can be applied appropriately. International restorative justice practice emphasises the need for voluntary participation and prioritisation of safety needs.

SA’s recently approved the National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide, which is supported by Faith Action, call for service delivery that addresses the restoration of human dignity, builds caring communities and responds to historical and collective trauma.

This focus aligns fully with Pope Francis’ call to “contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity, fraternity between all men and women’.  There is no better way for us to heed these calls than to support the provision of restorative justice dialogue services in whatever way we can.


[1] See https://www.saferspaces.org.za/understand/entry/gender-based-violence-in-south-africa and Understanding and addressing violence against women, WHO Information Sheet available at https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/77432/WHO_RHR_12.36_eng.pdf;jsessionid=A2CF44DBE9C4B36495FF25483BB1E5FD?sequence=1

[2] See 3 briefs in this regard at https://hsf.org.za/publications/hsf-briefs/sexual-assault-i-sexual-offences-in-the-criminal-justice-system

[3] Delia A. Bernardi & Francois Steyn (2020): Developing and testing a Christian-based

program to address depression, anxiety, and stress in intimate partner violence, Journal of

Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15426432.2020.1828221

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.