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The Hidden Crime

South Africa’s Domestic Violence Shelters Forced to Turn Women Away

South Africa has had a Domestic Violence Act since 1998, but its critics say the law is ineffective, leaving women with nowhere to turn when they try to escape abusive relationships. We speak to rights activist Claudia Lopes about what more needs to be done.

Written by Jen Thorpe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Girls hold signs during a protest against violence against women, in Gugulethu, just outside Cape Town, in May 2016. In the 2015-16 financial year, there were more than 275,000 applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases in South Africa. AFP/Rodger Bosch

South Africa is a country with extremely high levels of domestic violence, where one in five women over the age of 18 report being abused by a partner. In the 2015-16 financial year, there were 275,536 new applications for protection orders made in domestic violence cases, a 4.3 percent rise from the previous year. The country passed the Domestic Violence Act in 1998, but women’s rights advocates say the process for reporting and escaping perpetrators is slow and complicated.

In her role as the Cape Town-based project manager of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, Claudia Lopes, 39, has worked since 2005 for better implementation of South Africa’s Domestic Violence Act. In particular, she has advocated for the state to fulfill its duty to provide shelters for abused women.

There are just 13 shelters in the Western Cape, many of which are only partly funded by the government, having to source the remaining funds from international or local donors. The law itself is silent on how much funding should be allocated to address the problem of domestic violence or run shelters efficiently, only providing the option for police to refer victims of abuse to them. When those shelters struggle to access funding, that referral by police can become problematic. The waiting list at some Western Cape shelters is around 10 per month, with many women having to be turned away because of a lack of space.

Women & Girls spoke to Lopes about the challenges of tackling domestic violence in South Africa and what needs to be done to ensure women can leave abusive relationships quickly and safely.

Women & Girls: Do you think South Africa’s domestic violence law is effective?

Claudia Lopes: Although there are gaps in the law, the act itself is good. Implementation, however, is problematic. There are a number of key challenges.

First, the insensitivity of staff at police stations, health facilities and courts, who must assist the survivors of violence, causes secondary trauma for many women when they report.

Second, in some instances, these staff do not take the complaint of domestic violence seriously or acknowledge that women who report violence are often in danger.

Third, the court processes themselves can be arduous and time-consuming. It is common for complainants to have to return multiple times to court during the application process and to have problems applying for protection orders at court.

Finally, although the law makes provisions for a perpetrator of abuse to leave the home, in practice this is difficult to implement. To remove someone from the home, another legal process around eviction must come into effect, which prevents the immediate relief that domestic violence victims need. In many instances, the only option when being abused is to leave the home and seek shelter elsewhere.

Women & Girls: What is the demographic of women seeking shelter? And how do shelters help them?

Lopes: Our research, in partnership with the National Shelter Movement of South Africa, shows the majority of women entering shelters are young, often 35 years or younger, have limited education and limited income. Most of them are unemployed and only a few are in receipt of state social welfare grants.

This particular socioeconomic background and the experience of domestic violence means that many survivors of domestic violence have multiple financial, health and legal support needs. To provide the care and support that survivors need, including addressing the needs of their children, shelters in turn need sufficient resources, capacity and the expertise. Shelters have the potential to prevent further violence and to promote women’s skills so they don’t return to violent relationships.

Women & Girls: What are some of the challenges women face when they need to access a shelter in South Africa?

Lopes: Due to the rates of violence against women in our country, shelters are an absolute necessity. However, at present, there are not enough shelters to meet the demand, and those that do exist don’t have sufficient funds and cannot expand to provide better support.

The law places an obligation on members of the police to refer or transfer women to shelters when they report domestic violence, but the law does not specify how these shelters are to be provided for financially from the state budget.

Women’s rights advocate Claudia Lopes is pushing the South African government to live up to its promise to create more shelters for domestic abuse survivors. (Jen Thorpe)

Women & Girls: How does this impact the ability of domestic violence survivors to access safe shelter?

Lopes: The shortage of shelters has real effects. When filled to capacity, shelters have no choice but to turn women away, which means they will either be forced to return to their abusive partners, thus being subjected to ongoing abuse or even death, or risk homelessness, which has its own set of potentially disastrous consequences to their health and safety. Some shelters are also unable to accommodate women and their children, particularly older children, which means these women are also vulnerable to destitution.

This funding shortage also negatively affects the lives of the women providing support to shelters. Staff subsidies are generally below the industry standard and in other instances even lower than South Africa’s National Minimum Wage.

Women & Girls: Are there any moves to address these challenges in the future?

Lopes: The government is developing victim empowerment legislation and looking into more effective funding models. To really address domestic violence, though, we need a significant mind-shift in society in general and a stronger, more robust justice system. We also need to tackle our high rates of substance abuse, which has proved to be a significant cause of domestic violence.

Women & Girls: What motivates you to do this work?

Lopes: For me, the greatest moments in my career have been those “aha” moments I’ve shared with women; those moments when they realize they are not to blame for being beaten or being raped; that it’s not acceptable and that they have a voice.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.

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