South Africa: Violence against Women and the Medico-Legal System

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This report focuses mainly on one aspect of the criminal justice system and its handling of violence against women: the performance of those involved in the provision of medical expertise to the courts when it is alleged that women have been abused. Medical evidence is often a crucial element in the investigation and prosecution of a case of rape or sexual assault. Many rape cases result in acquittals simply because, if the only evidence before the court consists of the differing accounts given by the woman and man, the man will be given the benefit of the doubt; medical evidence, where it is available, may provide the only corroboration of the woman's allegations. While the absence of medical evidence does not indicate that no assault occurred, it is essential that medico-legal examinations be carried out promptly, expertly and objectively, to ensure that crucial evidence to support the case is not passed over. Police and court officials must be equipped to evaluate that evidence and to ensure that it is properly used. The report concludes that the medico-legal system in South Africa is deeply flawed, with problems of inaccessibility, prejudice and lack of training at all levels.