FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: Mbuyiselo Botha, third left, of the Sonke Gender Justice Network with colleagues. The writer says the CGE missed the opportunity to be at the Equality Court with Sonke. Pic: JAMES OATWAY. 16/03/2010. © Sunday Times.
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE: Mbuyiselo Botha, third left, of the Sonke Gender Justice Network with colleagues. The writer says the CGE missed the opportunity to be at the Equality Court with Sonke. Pic: JAMES OATWAY. 16/03/2010. © Sunday Times.

"THE committee finds that it must report on the Commission (for Gender Equality) in pain and sorrow, rather than in anger," wrote the ad hoc parliamentary committee on the Review of Chapter 9 and Associated Institutions in 2007. Little has changed since then.

A 2009 assessment of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) by Four Rivers found it to be in such a chaotic state that it recommended the institution be run by the government's Public Administration Leadership and Management Academy.

And as if that were not enough, last week, parliament's standing committee on public accounts met with the CGE to discuss irregularities in the commission's annual report, as well as wasteful expenditure of its budget. But in the absence of key CGE role players, and Scopa's unhappiness with the CGE's responses to its questions, the meeting was adjourned.

To appreciate what a lost opportunity the CGE has become, it's necessary to briefly describe its functions and powers.

According to the Commission on Gender Equality Act of 1996, the CGE must conduct monitoring and evaluation, investigations, research, information and education programmes, as well as liaise with bodies promoting gender equality. To carry out these functions the CGE has been given wide powers of search and seizure, as well as subpoena. It can also compel the provision of evidence and refer matters to court.

The CGE may also make recommendations to Parliament about amending laws, as well as adopting new legislation.

That's not all. The Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000 allows the commission to resolve complaints brought in terms of the act, while equality courts may also refer matters to the CGE. Finally, the act enables the CGE to request any state institution to provide information on steps taken in achieving gender equality, including information on executive action and compliance with the law.

While the CGE has occasionally requested information from some government departments, it has not utilised the act's other relevant provisions. Indeed, when a golden opportunity for its involvement in the equality courts presented itself in the recent hate speech matter brought by Sonke Gender Justice Network against Julius Malema, the CGE was conspicuous by its absence from both trial proceedings and public discussions.

With the exception of making submissions to Parliament, the CGE does not appear to have ever exercised any of its powers either.

Think what might be achieved in relation to violence against women if it did choose to do so. For example, it could subpoena both the minister and national commissioner of police to detail exactly when and how they plan to re-establish the specialist family violence, child protection and sexual offences units, so hurriedly and unwisely "redeployed" to women and children's detriment in 2006.

Investigating the Department of Justice's 2005 decision to halt the rollout of specialised sexual offences courts would be another invaluable exercise. The CGE could also utilise its powers to conduct on-site inspections, as well as engage in search-and-seizure operations, at those police stations accused of failing to record rape cases and dumping dockets.

In 2008 the Independent Complaints Directorate audited 434 police stations nationally regarding the handling of domestic violence cases. No more than 14percent complied fully with the Domestic Violence Act. The ICD can do little beyond report on this dismal fact. The CGE, however, could contact non-compliant stations and ask them to outline how they will rectify this . Subsequent on-site inspections could determine whether the stations had taken steps to meet their legal obligations in terms of the act.

Asking the Department of Justice to provide detailed plans, complete with budgets and time frames, around the further establishment of family courts is also long overdue. Five such pilot courts were established in 1996 and apparently a blueprint for another 17 such courts recommended in 2002. These courts are intended to deal with maintenance, domestic violence and children's matters - problems affecting many women. The CGE should be investigating why family courts occupy such an inferior and under-prioritised status.

Instead, the commission is taken up by infighting and plagued by weak leadership and ineffective management. It has also been lumbered with some political appointees more interested in personal advancement than the attainment of gender equality. Unsurprisingly the CGE's grasp both of gender equality and the manner in which it is to be achieved, as well as its mandate, is limited.

l The writer is a senior researcher at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre to End Violence Against Women.