Sheltering the victims of South Africa’s ‘second pandemic’
“It was really challenging as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these GBV victims, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abuser at the police station.” – Brown Lekekela, Green Door shelter
“Stepping into the shelter is like eating a box of mixed chocolates. You step in and you don’t know what chocolate is going to pop up today. While we are still practising the covid-19 protocols, it could be anything from a mother giving birth or going into labour, to electricity that has run out, to a resident having to go to hospital and for us needing to arrange transport for her.”
This is what a typical day full of surprises looks like in the shoes of St Anne’s Homes mother bird Joy Lange. Lange’s nest lies peacefully within the industrial hub of Woodstock, Cape Town, where women and children fleeing from violence are offered a second chance at life.
Cape Town born and bred, Lange is executive director of gender-based violence (GBV) shelter, St Anne’s Homes; an executive member of the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM); and the woman holding GBV victims’ hands and keeping a roof over their heads through their rehabilitation.
While South Africa has been fighting the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a second pandemic raging through the land ferociously for years. This pandemic is the killing of women and children by South African men. This is a pandemic that does not necessarily require more beds in a hospital, but more beds in GBV shelters to aid and rehabilitate our nation’s vulnerable women and children.
Rehabilitating a traumatised woman coming from violence involves various forms of counselling to aid emotional healing and confidence building. Along with counselling services, GBV shelters often provide childcare, women empowerment programmes, skill development, and essential needs such as meals, healthcare, and toiletries. The aim of GBV shelters is to rehabilitate a GBV survivor to a point where they can get a job and become self-reliant.
Gender-based violence is broadly defined by GBV and USAid researcher, Shelah Bloom, as “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between genders, within the context of a specific society.”
Covid-19 exacerbated GBV
This second pandemic was not brought on by covid-19, but rather heightened exponentially because of it. Between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020, prior to the covid-19 outbreak in South Africa, crime statistics reported that a total of 2 695 women were murdered in South Africa during the 12-month period. This equates to a woman being murdered every three hours within South Africa.
Non-profit organisation and lifeline for GBV victims, TEARS Foundation, operates as a database and a web/mobi site that provides crisis intervention, advocacy and counselling for those affected by GBV. TEARS intervention specialist and GBV survivor, Monica Moagi, notes how she and her organisation were working around the clock to accommodate the increased need of their GBV services since the start of the national lockdown.
“It was just overwhelming. The minute there was lockdown, that was when you really got to know your partner and understand their anger, and that is where the rise of GBV occurred. That is when we saw the demand for our services and the use of our hotline rise by 100%,” says Moagi.
Similarly, the World Health Organisation notes in a research paper published on March 26, 2020, that while the covid-19 pandemic does not suddenly create the issue of GBV, it can exacerbate the risk of violence for women.
“Stress, the disruption of social and protective networks, and decreased access to services all can exacerbate the risk of violence for women,” says the paper. “Other services, such as hotlines, crisis centres, shelters, legal aid and protection services may also be scaled back, further reducing access to the few sources of help that women in abusive relationships might have.”
Getting into a shelter
With increased pressure from the anti-GBV movement to put measures in place to aid victims, the government scrambled to try implement GBV services (such as sheltering) during the South African lockdown. GBV victims were, however, turning instead to established, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for help.
According to Moagi, this is due to the lack of facilities that government shelters provided GBV victims. To be housed at a government–implemented shelter, a GBV victim was required to have a coronavirus test before being allowed in.
“There was no system in place in government shelters where they could house and isolate people while being tested, and then later move them to the shelter once they had tested negative for covid-19,” Moagi said. “The challenge is, now there is an added stress of getting tested for covid-19, which GBV victims are not emotionally prepared to go through.”
In the interim, GBV victims had to isolate themselves until their covid-19 test came back negative. The sad reality is that this could often mean the victims would have to go home and stay with their abusers.
NGO shelters thankfully used a different approach to ensure that the necessary covid-19 measures were met. GBV victims were either isolated within the shelter itself for a period of 14 days (provided the shelter had enough space), or a staged approach was used that involved the collaboration of various NGO shelters working together.
This staged approach is what 17 shelters in Western Cape worked tirelessly to execute to continue providing GBV support for women and children during the pandemic.
“Four of these 17 shelters were small, which acted as stage-one shelters. The GBV victim would go into one of those four shelters for two–weeks of quarantine,” Lange explained. “Thereafter they would go to one of the other 13 shelters, which acted as stage-two shelters where they would stay for a minimum of three–months.”
Good Samaritan Brown Lekekela single-handedly runs stage-one shelter Green Door, with the hope that he acts as a vector for change in South Africa’s second pandemic. Green Door temporarily houses GBV victims located in the heart of one of Johannesburg’s ruthless and poverty ridden townships, Diepsloot. Green Door houses women for up to five–days to begin the covid-19 quarantine process in a safe space, while Lekekela arranges an alternative shelter for the women to stay in on a long-term basis.
Having a mere six beds in a three-bedroom house, and an endless number of GBV victims seeking help, covid-19 forced Lekekela to cut his already small capacity by half.
“As the covid-19 numbers were rising, so was the number of women needing help,” Lekekela said. “It was really challenging, as many of the long-term shelters were closed and I had no more space to house these women, so all I could do was encourage the women to open a case against their abusers at the police station.”
Getting to a shelter
The coronavirus pandemic has not only created numerous hurdles for GBV victims getting safely into a GBV shelter but has also increased the difficulty of victims leaving their abusers to physically get to a shelter. Level five of the national lockdown stipulated that South Africans must remain in their homes unless performing essential services. This meant that coming up with an excuse to leave the presence of your abuser would have been even more difficult for a GBV victim under the umbrella of a pandemic.
The inability of abuse victims to safely get to a shelter could have been seen among the quiet corridors of GBV shelters in Eastern Cape. Shelter manager at Masimanyane Women’s Shelter in East London, and Eastern Cape NSM representative Chrislynn Moonieyan noticed that her shelter was not as busy during the national lockdown period as she had initially anticipated it would be.
“We know that violence against women was continuing in the country during lockdown, but we weren’t seeing a reflection of this in our shelters,” said a concerned Moonieyan.
During the first week of the national lockdown, from March 27 to March 31, police ministry spokesperson Brigadier Peters told Africa Check that “the police received 2 300 complaints in relation to GBV”. The question is, how do these complaint numbers fare in relation to previous years? According to Peters, an average of 1 673 GBV complaints were made per week in 2019. Therefore, these numbers suggest that not only was GBV continuing throughout the national lockdown, but its frequency also increased.
Having to reassess the lockdown situation, Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela that from her experience “the lockdown regulations acted as a barrier to women trying to receive GBV services”, and “people were also just too fearful of the virus to seek GBV services”.
The sentiment is echoed in a brief published by UN Women that explores the impact covid-19 has had on the provision of essential services for women experiencing violence during the pandemic. According to UN Women, GBV victims “may have more difficulties in promptly reporting violence and obtaining essential police and justice services, either physically, or through helplines, as they live 24/7 with their abusers and have no privacy to make such phone calls”.
With little privacy away from one’s abuser, the importance of planning one’s escape plan becomes a life–or–death situation for GBV victims amid a global pandemic. Working side by side with victims at St Anne’s Homes, Lange emphasises the need for a victim escape plan, by relaying the story of a brave woman whose husband locked her up in their home during the national lockdown.
“One of the women who came in during lockdown had planned her exit by writing down the details of the people who had previously assisted her in building an abuse case against her husband, on a 5x5cm piece of paper that she hid under her breast. The woman landed up getting quite sick and needed to go to the clinic. After her husband briefly left her alone in the clinic queue while he got his cigarettes, the woman just ran and never looked back,” Lange told Wits Vuvuzela. From the smile on Lange’s face, it is evident she is proud of the powerful women she crosses paths with daily.
Running a shelter in the time of covid-19
Keeping the doors of an NGO shelter open during the covid-19 pandemic, however, comes at a massive cost for a shelter. Relying largely on private and corporate donations to bolster the costs involved with running a GBV shelter and providing rehabilitation services means getting funding is a struggle at the best of times. With the added financial and economic blow that covid-19 dealt to South Africans, this task became even harder for NGO shelters.
“Fortunately we have a three-year funding contract with a company,” Moonieyan tells Wits Vuvuzela with a sense of relief. “What we needed to do was renegotiate with our donor to redirect our funds. We had to ensure there was enough PPE (personal protection equipment) for the staff and our clients; enough vitamins and immune boosters; and enough food to provide good nutrition,’’ says Moonieyan. ‘‘All our costs were suddenly going up because everyone was staying at home all day, which also increased the maintenance needed within the shelter.” Moonieyan says she is grateful that her shelter was able to continue providing such an essential service.
With some shelters receiving a government subsidy for their GBV services, Moonieyan notes that these shelters were left worse off, even with the government’s support. “Working with other shelters, I know that those who were involved with government funding were really badly off,” Moonieyan recalls. “The first payment these shelters received from the government only came last month [September], when it was due in April. Ultimately, they went five months without a government subsidy that makes up the majority of their funding.”
The coronavirus pandemic has proved to provide more challenges to South African society every day. The lockdown that was supposed to aid in keeping the nation’s people safe from contracting the virus created the ultimate paradox for GBV victims by imposing a toxic environment of victims being locked up with the peril of their abusers.
Not only had GBV increased during the pandemic, but covid-19 also created various barriers to GBV victims getting into shelters, to shelters, and the ability of the shelters to adequately provide their services. Despite all these barriers, NGO shelters and phenomenal individuals at St Anne’s Homes, Green Door and Masimanyane Women’s Shelter worked tirelessly to continue the fight against GBV by caring for and sheltering the survivors of South Africa’s second pandemic.