(Johannesburg) – The South African government has taken important steps but did not provide adequate funding for shelters and other services for gender-based violence survivors during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many survivors have been made more vulnerable in the context of Covid-19.
The South African government has acknowledged high rates of gender-based violence both during and before the pandemic. But South African experts told Human Rights Watch that despite promises – including in a National Strategic Plan – to address gender-based violence and femicide, the government has still failed to provide necessary funding for shelters and other services. Efforts should be made to improve access for marginalized people, including sex workers; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; and undocumented survivors.
“South Africa is facing a situation in which survivors have been locked down with abusers, and they need economic security to free themselves from their abusers, all during a very tight job market and a period of food insecurity,” said Wendy Isaack, LGBT researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Key services such as shelters have been under huge stress for months because of pandemic-related problems and costs and long-standing difficulties like late payment of funds in some places and patchy government support.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed staff at seven shelters spread across the country and six other frontline organizations working directly with victims to prevent gender-based violence or provide emergency support to survivors. Human Rights Watch also interviewed activists and other experts from 12 organizations working to end this violence. Human Rights Watch made unsuccessful attempts to interview or obtain feedback from South Africa’s Department of Social Development (DSD), which oversees shelter services.
Those interviewed said that the biggest problem was a lack of adequate government funding to help overwhelmed nongovernmental organizations providing direct support to victims, including shelters, cope with the pandemic.
The DSD should finalize its draft Intersectoral Shelter Policy as a matter of urgency, and all government agencies involved should carry out planned improvements.
Immediate-, medium- and long-term impacts from South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdowns have increased the risk for women and girls of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Human Rights Watch research with frontline workers in South Africa suggests that this risk may be greater for additionally marginalized people like black lesbians, transgender men and women, sex workers, and older women, as well as refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants.
Those interviewed said that domestic violence victims living under lockdown were cut off from others who might help them, giving them no respite from partners or family members beating, raping, or psychologically or verbally abusing them.
Government support to shelters during the Covid-19 pandemic appeared to vary enormously among provinces. Some shelters described firm relationships and public health guidance and other support from the provincial DSD staff. Shelters in the Western Cape, for example, said that the agency provided guidance, solidarity, and personal protective equipment (PPE) and that funding for shelters arrived on time.
In other places, though, funding was late. The National Shelter Movement of South Africa, a nonprofit organization with about 78 shelters under its umbrella, said that some staff even had to take personal loans to pay expenses. The South African government did promote a hotline for victims it had set up in 2014, but civil society members said it sometimes provided confusing or out-of-date information and that it was hard for some victims to use because they were afraid their abuser would hear them.
Commentators have said that the South African government worked to keep services open for the survivors. But experts criticized the South African government, saying it was too late to acknowledge the impact of strict lockdowns and had not provided adequate public information about shelters and services to make clear that domestic violence victims could leave their homes to get help.
Frontline workers said that many people, perhaps especially among vulnerable populations, were further endangered by the sudden loss of jobs, incomes, or housing. Sex workers, in particular, were forced to leave brothels and to take greater risks to make ends meet as the work dried up, sex worker rights groups said. Research by Human Rights Watch in 2018 found that female sex workers are especially vulnerable to violence in South Africa, in part because their work is criminalized.
Frontline workers also said that loss of income and lack of food security made undocumented migrants even more dependent on abusive partners and less likely to leave them. Human Rights Watch research found that the government’s Covid-19 aid programs, including food parcels during national lockdown, overlooked people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, and many LGBT people.
Shelters vary in whether they accept undocumented migrant survivors. South African law prohibits sheltering immigrants without documentation but allows for emergency humanitarian support for undocumented people. The exception is not clearly defined, and some shelters fear liability for violating the law. South Africa has one shelter designed for LGBT survivors, the Pride Shelter in Cape Town. Though other shelters accept them in theory, experts said that more funding, training, and skills building is needed to counter discrimination and bias in the shelter space, provide tailored services, and raise awareness about availability of shelter services among marginalized populations.
The pandemic and lockdowns temporarily affected or made impossible some important in-house services in shelters, such as some forms of counseling and job training, Human Rights Watch found. Job opportunities for clients evaporated. Shelters were unable to carry out normal in-person outreach activities to raise awareness about their services as well as fundraising activities to support themselves or supplement government grants.
Perhaps because of uncertainty and isolation, several shelter workers said they felt that anxiety and depression among clients increased. Staff also had to make significant changes to how they worked, they and experts said, for example, working week-long shifts rather than going home every day, and there were many reports of burnout among shelter staff.
Inconsistent government support for the shelters is not a new problem. The Heinrich Böll Foundation for example, together with the National Shelter Movement, has long noted that shelters are “chronically underfunded,” and that funding is also highly variable between and within provinces. A 2019 report on the state of shelters by the Commission for Gender Equality, an independent government watchdog body, found “grossly inadequate and misaligned” funding for shelters from the agency and late payments in some provinces.
Ongoing sensitization and skills training for shelter staff to prevent discrimination against LGBT people, sex workers, or undocumented African non-nationals and to ensure tailored services are available is important, Human Rights Watch said. The DSD should also ensure that all shelters accept undocumented survivors and know how to assist them with immigration procedures.
“The government of South Africa has been addressing gender-based violence during the crisis over the past year,” Isaack said. “But a large-scale and fully resourced effort will be needed to ensure the Covid-19 crisis and its fallout over the next years doesn’t result in South Africa’s rates for gender-based violence worsening further.”