RAPISTS acquitted because of some technical glitsch in court. Sexual predators who will spend far less time than they should in jail because the judge or magistrate felt an incomprehensible sympathy with the perpetrator. We hear about cases like this week after week and we feel angry, hopeless, appalled. Is there anything we can do? Any way in which ordinary people can impact on rape trials to minimise mistakes that benefit attackers to the detriment of their victims?

Despite a widespread feeling of helplessness I believe there is something that can be done to confront this continuing injustice. Remember the work carried out by various organisations, most notably the Black Sash, during the days of apartheid legislation? They trained volunteers who sat at court and observed the workings of, for example, pass law prosecutions. The data they collected proved critically important was subsequently used to challenge aspects of these laws.

There’s another more contemporary model of this kind of lay involvement, not from the legal world this time but familiar to thousands of birders. Because scientists can’t themselves collect all the information they need about bird distribution in South Africa, a massive project has been set up to build an ‘atlas’ providing this data. The country is divided into a multitude of manageably sized sections and ordinary birders who want to make a contribution spend time in an area convenient to them, listing the birds they see. They send their information back to the specialists who interpret it to understand the bigger picture and make findings about problems such as the impact of climate change on birds. People who participate in the project are, though not scientists themselves, helping to make a scientific contribution.

So why can’t we learn from initiatives like these and involve people all over South Africa, concerned about the problem of rape and how it is prosecuted in courts, in a project to observe and monitor trials? After some practical training, people could attend trials and, with the aid of a check list, note the names of the officials involved, whether the proper technicalities have been observed and other aspects of the case. If there were a national network, this information could be given to experts for analysis.

We could then be able to name names in cases where officials have been negligent. We would know, as in fact has happened, that a certain judicial officer called a particular rapist ‘gentle’ in the way he went about his business. And when it came to interviews with the Judicial Service Commission for appointment or promotion, we might well be able to provide a clearer picture of a candidate’s attitude to rape and the sentencing of offenders.

I had originally thought that monitoring might have to be carried out locally, with each area working independently, but when I contacted Lisa Vetten, director of Tshwaralang Legal Advocacy Centre, based in Braamfontein, she had a slightly different view. She not only agreed that court monitoring could be critically important, but said her organisation with dozens of others had already begun a pilot study involving exactly this kind of monitoring – the Shukumisa (Xhosa for ‘to stir things up’) campaign.

During this year’s 16 days of activism against gender violence trained participants in the Shukumisa campaign will monitor hospitals, police stations and courts, to see if they are complying with legislation such as the sexual offences laws. If this approach works, the project will be broadened beyond the organisations now involved. With more participants it would be possible to give officials in courts around South Africa a sense of being held to account. It would help eliminate a range of problems – like the failure to warn an accused that he could face the minimum sentence, an oversight that has led to the fair trial rights of rapists being infringed and as a result to the imposition of far lower sentences.

‘We’ve all see people protesting outside courts at rape trials, but there is work that needs to be done inside the courts,’ says Vetten. ‘We need people to monitor what goes on in the courts. To sit and take notes.’

Here’s the bottom line – if you’d like to help, there is in fact a way. Visit www.shukamisa.org.za; if you can identify with the project, click on ‘contact’ and send in your details. Early next year, once the impact of this year’s 16 days of activism has been assessed, you will be contacted and invited to participate in what I hope will become an important national pressure group, tracking rape prosecutions and the role played by the courts.