The South African government has acknowledged high rates of gender-based violence both during and before the pandemic. The South African government has taken important steps but did not provide adequate funding for shelters and other services for gender-based violence survivors.
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.
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.
Human Rights Watch analysis showed that the authorities did not take steps to facilitate support, including from donors, for refugees and asylum seekers whose access to food and other basic necessities were limited during the nationwide lockdown. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to ascertain, the government did not consult with people from vulnerable and marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities, leaving many at serious risk of Covid-19 infection, hunger, and other harm.
Human Rights Watch found that the pandemic had a significant impact on gender-based violence shelters. The shelters provide refuge from violence and include safe houses that offer temporary accommodation. Crises centers typically offer accommodation for three to six months, and most interviewed by Human Rights Watch also provide counseling, psychosocial and emotional assistance, and life planning, skills building and job training, as well as connections to courts or other government services such as help with protection orders or divorces.
Human Rights Watch found that shelters differed in whom they accepted as clients. Undocumented migrants, LGBT people, and women with older male children were sometimes excluded, for reasons that range from lack of private family facilities to concern about running afoul of the immigration law, or not being able to pay expenses the government would not reimburse for non-nationals. Older women, people who use drugs, and women with severe illnesses were sometimes excluded as well, with many facilities lacking the resources to provide specialized health or services, such as personal care and other support, to people with disabilities, including older people with disabilities.
While sex workers, transwomen, transmen, and lesbians, were usually accepted in theory, people working with these vulnerable groups said that particular group often did not feel welcome and that more needed to be done to help them access shelters.
“Vulnerable groups struggle to find or use shelters mainly because of stigma,” a shelter social worker said. “They are often discriminated against by the public and by staff at shelters … and they're coming from a place where there's a lack of acceptance to start with from family members.”
Citing security concerns, about half of the shelters contacted would not take older boys, usually any male over 12. Two shelters said that they did not take older women, in one case because of fears that they would never find another home for them. “We can't [discharge] them because other support structures [like [older] people’s homes] are not working,” said one social worker. More commonly shelters said that they would not take women using drugs, because they are not set up to safely provide necessary services.
“Some shelters won't take foreign nationals, especially undocumented people, [and] we spent a lot of time trying to place foreign nationals,” said one person who had helped more than 50 women leave domestic violence in Johannesburg. “We will assist, we won't judge them if they've got papers and have been referred to us and have a right to be in the country,” one shelter social worker said. Others said that they would take undocumented survivors, but it was “problematic … we then have to refer them to the correct institutions handling their cases.”
South Africa: Broken Promises to Aid Gender-Based Violence Survivors | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)