South Africa’s 2nd Pandemic: reflecting on gender-based violence during and beyond Covid-19

South Africa’s 2nd Pandemic: reflecting on gender-based violence during and beyond Covid-19

Mercy Brown-Luthango | Amandla 71/72 | September 2020

For the past five months South Africa, like many other countries across the globe, has been caught in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has fundamentally changed every aspect of our working and social lives. Its impact on the economy and the livelihoods of thousands of South Africans has been devastating. The pandemic has also shone a light on the everyday struggles of millions of South Africans in terms of food insecurity, joblessness, and violence, particularly gender-based violence. The impact of these challenges affects men and women differently – they are not gender neutral.

The Covid-19 pandemic has intensified women’s multiple vulnerabilities. The South African economy has reportedly lost about 3 million jobs since the start of the lockdown. Two-thirds of these jobs belonged to women. Women make up the majority of those employed in the informal sector, the sector hardest hit by the pandemic. Informal workers have no job security, do not enjoy the protection of labour legislation and cannot access credit. For women, this entrenches economic dependency on men – one of the factors that keeps them trapped in abusive relationships.

Government, the media and other bodies have constantly called for the public to protect themselves and others by social distancing and staying at home. This is  considered the most effective way of protecting oneself from contracting the virus. But what does safety mean?  

The unsafe home

The home might offer protection against an unseen enemy in the form of a virus, but it is also the place where women are most at risk of experiencing gender-based violence. The home is located within the so-called “private sphere”, where women continue to shoulder the overwhelming responsibility for “home-making” and reproductive care. Yet they are not afforded the same comfort and safety which this space provides to others. Strict lockdown measures introduced during the Covid-19 pandemic, whilst crucial to contain the spread of this deadly virus, have the unintended consequence of confining victims of domestic violence to the home, at the mercy of an abusive partner.  

Several media outlets have reported a sharp increase in the number of domestic violence cases during the lockdown period. Reports indicate that the police’s gender-based violence hotline received 2,300 calls during the first five days of lockdown. That’s close to three times the rate outside of lockdown. This number reportedly rose to more than 120 000 during the first three weeks of the lockdown. This prompted the President to refer to gender-based violence as South Africa’s second pandemic, in the midst of Covid-19.

This dynamic is not unique to South Africa. Countries all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, India, Greece, Germany and Brazil to name but a few, have seen increases in the number of reported domestic abuse cases during lockdown. A state-run drop-in centre for victims of domestic abuse in Brazil, for example, reported a 40-50% surge in domestic violence cases. A helpline in the Catalan region of Spain saw a 20% rise in calls during the first few days of lockdown. Calls to similar hotlines in Cyprus increased by 30% during the first week.

Statistics on violence and crime are notoriously unreliable as they only take reported incidents into account. Domestic violence is also not captured by police as a separate category of violence. This further skews the picture of the extent of gender-based violence in South Africa. Why is this still the case, 12 years after the Domestic Violence Act was passed in 1998?

There is no denying that gender-based violence is one of the biggest challenges in South Africa, in and outside the context of this pandemic.  Violence against women is endemic and South Africa is often referred to as the “rape capital” of the world. A complex web of inter-linked factors, operating at the household, city, and national levels, sustains the high levels of violence against women. These include structural drivers like poverty, inequality and unemployment, as well as societal and cultural norms and practices. These structural drivers are rooted in a patriarchal system that still treats women as inferior to men. This results in unequal power relations between men and women and unequal access to resources and material benefits, such as educational opportunities and certain types of jobs and remuneration that boost women’s autonomy. 

Need for more intervention

Covid-19, and uncertainties around the duration of this pandemic, necessitates interventions on multiple fronts, both short-term and longer-term, in the public and private sphere, to address the specific, multiple intersecting vulnerabilities women face.  Beyond addressing the structural drivers which contribute to gender-based violence in South Africa, there is a need for more immediate and medium-term interventions to ensure women’s freedom, safety and well-being in the public and private spheres. 

There have been proactive efforts by the South African Police Services, government departments and civil society organisations to lend support to victims of domestic abuse during the lockdown. These include online and additional telephonic reporting and counselling services. A national gender-based violence hotline and Thuthuzela Care Centres are dedicated centres that provide a one-stop service for victims of sexual violence at state hospitals. They have remained open during lockdown.  Whilst these efforts are encouraging, more longer-term solutions need to be implemented.

Chief amongst these is the increased delivery of suitable and quality housing for victims of domestic abuse. Currently there is no government department specifically mandated to build shelters or provide housing for victims of domestic violence. The National Department for Social Development (DSD), through its Integrated National Programme of Action Addressing Violence Against Women and Children (2013-2018), makes a commitment to the provision of a range of shelter services to victims of domestic abuse. However, the responsibility for the establishment, management and maintenance of shelter services still falls on non-profit organisations with limited funding, provided by DSD for these purposes.

Where shelter is provided, the duration of stay normally does not extend beyond six months. More options for the provision of medium to longer-term housing for victims of domestic abuse and their children should be considered and provided. One option might be an intergovernmental effort between DSD, municipalities and other government departments like the Department of Human Settlements and Public Works to investigate how public- and privately-owned vacant, unused buildings could be redeveloped into emergency housing for abused women.  

With the relaxation of some of the restrictions on movement and gathering in public spaces under level 2 of the lockdown, built environment interventions designed with the specific needs of women and other vulnerable groups in mind, need greater attention.  Safe public spaces, social facilities and measures to make public transport safer would enhance women’s mobility, freedom and enjoyment of public spaces.

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