Monday, 7 October 2013

Real Justice being served in the Garden of Burning Sand

Today's guest blog is by Corban Addison. Born in 1979, Corban Addison holds degrees in law and engineering from the University of Virginia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.  He began to experiment with writing at the age of fifteen; about the same time he developed an interest in international travel.  After completing a federal clerkship he began his career specialising in corporate law and litigation.  He has an abiding interest in international human rights, and is a supporter of numerous causes, including the abolition of modern slavery.

Imagine trying to prosecute a child rape case without the benefit of DNA. Now imagine that the child has Down syndrome and her speech capacity is limited; that her abuser is from an influential family with connections to the judge; that the police have no transport to track down leads and witnesses; and that the victim's testimony--and that of her playmates--is legally insufficient to uphold a conviction for the simple reason that they are minors. You are a human rights attorney advocating for the child. What do you do? What can you do that will make a difference?

Welcome to the world of Zoe Fleming and The Garden of Burning Sand--my new novel set in Southern Africa and the United States.

As a lawyer with a daughter of my own, I wish I could say that Garden is a work of pure fiction, a chimera I conjured up in my febrile legal imagination after one too many glasses of wine. Sadly, it is not. It was inspired by real-life events--by the harrowing tale of a Zambian girl with special needs whose family took her rapist to court despite threats of reprisal, and by the courageous non-profit lawyers who risked their lives and their reputations to see justice done.

In recent years, the media has devoted much attention to the global scourge of violence against women. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and co-author of Half the Sky, calls the oppression of women worldwide "the great moral challenge of the 21st century”.  Few people, however, are aware how often children are targeted for rape in Southern Africa, thanks to prevailing misogynistic attitudes and myths propagated by witch doctors about a cure-all for HIV.

In researching Garden, I spent six weeks in Zambia and South Africa, interviewing lawyers, doctors, social workers, and members of the development community about the problem and its solutions. I was aghast to learn that DNA is absent from Zambia's prosecutorial arsenal because there is no laboratory in the country. The closest facility is a thousand miles away in Johannesburg, and neither the courts nor the victims of rape have the money to send the evidence abroad for analysis.

The deeper I dug, the more dysfunction I discovered. I spoke to the chief paediatric
physician at Lusaka's University Teaching Hospital--an eminent doctor and passionate advocate for children--who told me that all of the semen samples he collects from minor victims he has to destroy because he has no lab to process them. I spent time with human rights attorneys who shared stories from "defilement" cases they had worked--about evidence gone missing, magistrates who reversed their own decisions under threat from defendants, and witnesses who were pressured not to testify or disappeared before trial.  I also learned that in Zambia the testimony of a minor must be corroborated by adult testimony or physical evidence, making it next to impossible to secure a conviction where the only eyewitnesses are children.

With so many hurdles to effective prosecution, it is no surprise that most defendants in child rape cases are exonerated. Time and again, defendants stand in the dock and rehearse a common refrain: "It's terrible that this child was raped, Your Worship, but I have no idea who did it.”  And one after another the judges let them go. In the vast majority of instances, this is where the story ends--unspeakable humiliation for the victim and blissful impunity for her abuser.

But exceptions do exist. In a few rare cases, real justice is served. These are the stories I went to Africa to find. This is the story I tell in The Garden of Burning Sand.

More information about Corban Addison can be found on his website and you can also find him on Facebook and on Twitter @CorbanAddison.

THE GARDEN OF BURNING SAND by Corban Addison is published by Quercus, hardback £16.99.

No comments: