Rachel Jewkes and colleagues examine the processing of rape cases by South African police and courts and show an association between documentation of ano-genital injuries, trials commencing, and convictions in rape cases.
Health services for victims of rape are recognised as a particularly neglected area of the health sector internationally. Efforts to strengthen these services need to be guided by clinical research. Expert medical evidence is widely used in rape cases, but its contribution to the progress of legal cases is unclear. Only three studies have found an association between documented bodily injuries and convictions in rape cases. This article aims to describe the processing of rape cases by South African police and courts, and the association between documented injuries and DNA and case progression through the criminal justice system.
Methods and Findings
We analysed a provincially representative sample of 2,068 attempted and completed rape cases reported to 70 randomly selected Gauteng province police stations in 2003. Data sheets were completed from the police dockets and available medical examination forms were copied. 1,547 cases of rape had medical examinations and available forms and were analysed, which was at least 85% of the proportion of the sample having a medical examination. We present logistic regression models of the association between whether a trial started and whether the accused was found guilty and the medico-legal findings for adult and child rapes. Half the suspects were arrested (n = 771), 14% (209) of cases went to trial, and in 3% (31) of adults and 7% (44) of children there was a conviction. A report on DNA was available in 1.4% (22) of cases, but the presence or absence of injuries were documented in all cases. Documented injuries were not associated with arrest, but they were associated with children's cases (but not adult's) going to trial (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] for having genital and nongenital injuries 5.83, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.87–18.13, p = 0.003). In adult cases a conviction was more likely if there were documented injuries, whether nongenital injuries alone AOR 6.25 (95% CI 1.14–34.3, p = 0.036), ano-genital injuries alone (AOR 7.00, 95% CI 1.44–33.9, p = 0.017), or both nongenital and ano-genital injuries (AOR 12.34, 95% CI 2.87–53.0, p = 0.001). DNA was not associated with case outcome.
This is the first study, to our knowledge, to show an association between documentation of ano-genital injuries, trials commencing, and convictions in rape cases in a developing country. Its findings are of particular importance because they show the value of good basic medical practices in documentation of injuries, rather than more expensive DNA evidence, in assisting courts in rape cases. Health care providers need training to provide high quality health care responses after rape, but we have shown that the core elements of the medico-legal response require very little technology. As such they should be replicable in low- and middle-income country settings. Our findings raise important questions about the value of evidence that requires the use of forensic laboratories at a population level in countries like South Africa that have substantial inefficiencies in their police services.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Sexual violence has significant short- and long-term mental and physical health consequences for the victim. Estimates of how common rape is vary within and between countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 1% and 12% of women aged 15 or over have experienced sexual violence by a nonpartner. It has also been used as a weapon of war.
The WHO recognises that rape may be committed by a spouse, partner, or acquaintance as well as a stranger, that men can be victims as well as perpetrators, and that coercion need not be physical. It advocates preventing sexual violence through better support for victims, legal and policy changes, educational programmes, and campaigns to change attitudes, and better health care services and training for health care workers.
Health services for victims of rape have two important roles: to assist the victim and to gather evidence for the police and courts. Nonetheless, health services for victims of rape are often poor. Over the last decade, the South African government has taken steps to reduce particularly high rates of sexual violence by broadening the legal definition of rape and improving health services.
Why Was This Study Done?
Previous studies into how useful expert medical evidence is for the police and courts have focused almost exclusively on high-income countries. It is not clear what interventions work best in countries with fewer resources. The researchers wanted to know the impact of medical evidence on how the South African criminal justice system handled cases of rape and attempted rape.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors analysed data from police and court files of 1,547 cases of rape or attempted rape first reported in 2003 to a random sample of police stations in Gauteng province, South Africa. They looked for associations between case data and the arrest, charge, trial, and conviction or acquittal of the alleged perpetrator. They included only cases that were closed when they collected data in 2006 and only cases that contained a record of a medical examination of the victim. The researchers used South Africa's then legal definition of rape as “intentional and unlawful vaginal sex with woman without consent.” They analysed cases involving adults and children (aged 0–17 years) separately. They found that the overall conviction rate was very low, with only 3% of adult cases and 7.4% of children's cases resulting in a guilty verdict. Many cases were dropped at each stage of the legal process and DNA evidence was often not collected or, if collected, not analysed. DNA reports were rarely available for the courts. Injuries were not associated with arrests for either adult or children's cases; an arrest took place in 40% of cases without injuries. Child cases were more likely to come to trial if injuries were present, although a guilty verdict was not more likely. The reverse was true in adult cases: the presence or absence of injury was not linked to cases being brought to trial, but if injuries were present, whether genital, nongenital, or both, a conviction was more likely.
What Do These Findings Mean?
One limitation of the research is that the researchers identified statistical associations of events, but this does not prove that one event caused the other. Other possible limitations of the study are that the researchers had access only to cases closed by the police, which may have biased their results, and the quality of the recorded data was very variable. In addition, the research did not consider other factors that may have affected case outcomes, such as how witnesses are perceived in court.
The system to collect and analyse DNA was rarely effective in making evidence available to the courts. It is known from other countries with effective systems that DNA evidence is of no value if the basis of defence is consent; for instance in cases where the accused is an intimate partner of the victim. Injuries appear not to be necessary to secure a conviction but may be seen as useful by the South African courts in corroborating the victim's testimony, at least in adult cases.
The authors conclude that in poor countries, training for nurses and/or doctors who act as forensic medical examiners in how to record injuries and present their evidence in court will be more effective than investing in costly systems for DNA analysis. However, they argue that in South Africa, as a middle-income country with a high proportion of nonintimate partner rapes, there would be benefit in improving the system to collect and analyse DNA evidence rather than abandoning it entirely.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000164.
Further information on rape in South Africa is available from the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre
Information on rape is also available from the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust
Emergency rape information, facts about rape, events, legal services, and medical care can be found at the Speakout Web site
The World Health Organization publishes a factsheet on sexual violence, a report on violence and health, as well as guidelines on medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence