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South Africa: Broken Promises to Aid Gender-Based Violence Survivors

Improve Shelter Funding; Increase Access for Sex Workers, LGBT, Undocumented Survivors

General view during the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) protest march organized by the Office of The Premier in collaboration with Phepha Foundation on April 26, 2021 in Durban, South Africa. © 2021 Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images

(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.”

For more information about gender-based violence in South Africa and the impact on shelter services, please see below.

Gender-Based Violence in South Africa

South Africa’s president has characterized gender-based violence in South Africa as a “second pandemic,” after the coronavirus. Statistics, including police reports, are worrying but incomplete, both because of problems with data collection and because victims often do not report abuse. Despite the lack of accurate statistics, it is evident that the rates are high, both for women and for LGBT people.

It is also not yet clear to what extent gender-based violence increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns. An analysis by the Heinrich Böll Foundation released in August 2021 found that various data, including police reporting, a government helpline, and hospitals, did not provide a clear indication that rates had increased, but said that more research was needed. Several people interviewed said that they thought rates increased, and experts and frontline workers widely agreed that the pandemic created additional vulnerabilities.

The South African government has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and passed national laws to carry out its obligations imposed by those treaties in domestic law. These include the 1998 Domestic Violence Act, the 2012 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, the 1998 Maintenance Act, and the 2011 Protection from Harassment Act.

In September 2021 parliament passed three linked bills amending relevant laws. One, the Domestic Violence Amendment Act, should make it easier for victims to get protection orders.

There is political will to address the crisis, but adequate funding has long been a problem, Human Rights Watch found. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide attributed the high rates of gender-based violence to South Africa’s history of violence and apartheid, but also to government underinvestment in solving the problem. Others have also concluded that budgetary constraints and lack of cooperation among government departments have undermined progress. Victims lack support when attempting to report violence and lack adequate access to courts and to shelters. The experts interviewed said that the pandemic worsened these problems.

The Commission on Gender Equality’s March 2020 submission to the United Nations committee that oversees states’ compliance with Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women detailed the situation just prior to the pandemic and lockdown. It said that while there was “political willingness to lead national efforts to deal with gender-based violence”, in practice, funding and implementation of a pre-Covid-19-era Emergency Response Action Plan was “still unfolding.” Despite promises of more support, the commission said that even before the pandemic, a lack of government funding had meant the shelters were forced to close, police were undertrained, and medical services for rape survivors were lacking.

The National Strategic Plan is the result of years of activism by South African civil society, including demonstrations in August 2018 that triggered a Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence. Drafted by government and activists, the South African cabinet has also approved the plan. However, it is difficult to track how the plan is being funded. In February 2021 in response to government efforts, the private sector pledged a total of 128 million South African Rand (R, about US$8.1 million) to fight gender-based violence.

Government financial support to shelters and services for survivors is an important part of meeting human rights obligations to address gender-based violence. The National Plan’s Pillar 4, “Response, Care Support and Healing,” and Pillar 5, “Economic Empowerment” tasks the DSD with increasing funding for shelters and services at shelters, and to increase access to shelters and interim housing for all victims, including LGBT people, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, older women, and women with older children.

Covid-19 and Economic Insecurity

The abrupt change in economic activity caused by the pandemic and response had a profound impact on many South African’s economic security. Interviewees said that certain marginalized populations, in particular, African LGBT asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and sex workers, already more at risk of violence, experienced a significant drop in food security and loss of income. This compounded their risk, especially for those who were forced into homelessness.

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.

“Things were very bad to be honest – migrant sex workers were told to move out of brothels and safe houses,” a sex worker peer advocate said about her efforts to assist sex workers in a small town in Gauteng province. “We intervened and made agreements [with the owners] like [in one place] – as long as the sex workers were able to pay electricity the owner allowed them to stay. In another brothel [the owner] gave them a few days after we intervened, but eventually they had to go.”

Dudu Dlamini, a sex worker activist, said that “Sex workers had no cash, no income, they were chased out of houses by landlords”. She said that the loss of income often affected three or four dependents. “They couldn't go home without bringing money, (couldn’t) visit their children.”

Sex work remains criminalized in South Africa, and as a result, the South African Police Service in some places perpetuates abuse by profiling and harassing sex workers. “Lockdown amplified the challenges for sex workers,” said Nosipho Vidima, a sex workers’ rights advocate. “You can imagine if you’re trying to work and there’s no one else in the street because of curfew… sex workers were harassed and arrested by police for being out, because they were known to be sex workers.”

A social worker at People Against Suffering, Suppression, Oppression, and Poverty (PASSOP), a community-based organization working to defend the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, and non-nationals in Cape Town, said economic insecurity because of the pandemic made it even less likely that their clients, mostly undocumented immigrant LGBT survivors of gender-based violence, would leave abusive partners or report violence. “The majority [of our clients] have lost their jobs [and the need for food and shelter have been those most faced during Covid-19,” he said, adding that the group’s programming had been replaced by proving food parcels and other emergency relief.

“[Even under better times] our clients can’t get work and struggle because they don’t have documents and so have to rely on partners even if they are ill-treated,” he said. He said that at least nine clients were doing sex work to survive, and some had faced police harassment and others violence, and all were more likely to have unsafe sex.

“We did an announcement about our food parcels on the radio as well as our evacuation services and our line blew up,” the codirector from Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Newly homeless people needed] things like buckets to go get water and plastic bags to keep their things in. Especially during the hard lockdown, we had a lot of LGBTIQ people we needed to assist because their families had thrown them out of homes [and] we also did a lot of parcels for non-nationals because there was no assistance for undocumented people.”

Covid-19 Impacts on Gender-Based Violence Shelters

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 did not receive any reports about major Covid-19 outbreaks in shelters, but protecting clients and staff from Covid-19 infection and managing lockdowns strained shelters in many ways. Several shelter workers said that stress and anxiety were greatly heightened for both clients and staff. “We probably worked harder than ever before,” said a senior social worker from a Durban shelter in KwaZulu-Natal. “We had greater levels of anxiety than before among the clients.”

One social worker said that a client and a worker, a cleaner at her shelter, had died of Covid-19, causing anxiety and distress among both staff and clients. “It was a roller coaster,” she said.

Clients at shelters had to self-isolate, especially new arrivals, meaning they lost out on solidarity and community, made worse by restrictions against visitors or making trips outside of the shelter. At one Gauteng shelter, for example, new clients had to self-isolate for 14 days. “It was a very traumatic time,” said a social worker at the shelter. “I’ve never spoken or debriefed about it, but it was frustrating and depressing and not just for the clients here but also for the staff.”

Two other senior shelter workers said that they and their staff had not had a chance to talk about the impact of the pandemic on their wellbeing, and a few people said that the work and sacrifices of shelter staff had not been acknowledged, and that burnout was increasingly a problem. “Everyone just put their heads down and did the work, but now we’re seeing the impact on staff,” said a senior social worker at a 120-bed shelter, Saartjie Bartman Centre, in Cape Town. At least two shelters moved employees from daily shifts, going home at night, to working a week at a time to reduce exposure.

Protections against Covid-19 also created additional costs. “We spent huge amounts of money on PPE in the first months, some R60,000 [about $3,800],” said a senior social worker at the Saartjie Bartman Centre. Like others, this shelter also spent precious funds on private car services to reduce staff exposure on public transport. Fundraising events were canceled and at least some shelters decided to stop in-kind deliveries of food and other support that they usually depend on to reduce opportunities for virus transmission. In-person outreach work in communities also stopped, potentially reducing people’s access and knowledge about sheltering.

Covid-19 Impacts on Services for Survivors

Shelter workers said that perhaps the most worrying loss for shelter residents from the pandemic has been job opportunities. “Women can't find jobs now, some have been with us for six months now and have no follow-up plan because of that,” a KwaZulu-Natal social worker at a shelter said in February. “I refuse to send a client back to an abusive situation.”

“Our clients have been disappointed,” said a senior social worker from the Sahara Shelter. “A lot come here unemployed, and we try to work as much as possible with local businesses and people who can give our clients jobs, so they have income, but that's not been possible under Covid-19.” Another social worker said that “We have 15 women [clients] with us now, and only two are employed – it's terrible.”

Government services were harder to get, including some lifesaving services. “Some government officials were working from home and it was hard to reach them”, a social worker from a shelter in the Eastern Cape Province said. “[This] led to a delay in service delivery to our clients and also added strain on them with regard to their cases. In the beginning of the lockdown, cases were postponed in court and protection orders could not be granted on the date set.”

“We faced huge problems in getting protection orders,” another social worker said.

Others said that health services were affected, with some hospitals shutting down or canceling normal services their clients depended on, some medications being harder to get, and general anxiety and uncertainty as to when taking a client to a hospital or clinic was worth the risk of exposure to Covid-19. “Access to mental [health services] and other health care has proved to be extremely inaccessible during lockdown, even more so than before,” a domestic violence worker in the Cape Flats said.

Shelters struggled to keep essential services such as psychosocial – mental health – support and counseling ongoing, and these essential services were halted in some places for at least a period. Some shelters lost at least some programming. “We also had to stop all our extra services,” said one social worker.

Organizations like SWEAT, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce, and Mothers for the Future, a SWEAT offshoot, who work to support sex workers including protecting them against gender-based violence, struggled with major programming losses, especially in the early days of the pandemic. “We had to stop support group meetings,” Dlamini said. “We moved over to a WhatsApp group so we could provide a little support.”

“We even saw places that had provided condoms for free had shut down,” said a sex worker activist, Megan Lessing. “Some sex workers were earning R50 a day [about $3.20] and paying R20 [about $1.30] for condoms.”

Access to Shelters for Marginalized Survivors

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.”

The Creighton Shelter in KwaZulu-Natal said that they had recently taken in a transwoman. “It was very hard for her to find a shelter because in her ID she's still a man," the manager said. Other shelters said that staff can feel reluctant to accept transwomen in the facility, especially if there are no private rooms and bathrooms, or training for staff. Another shelter manager and National Shelter Movement executive committee member, Bernadine Bachar, said that the shelter serves transwomen, but that generally, “there’s a lot of reluctance to take transwomen. Staff feel that they’re not equipped to deal with issues.”

Sex workers experience barriers to accessing shelters, including assumptions about their drug use, on whether they can remain working and not violate shelter rules, or whether they have immigration documentation. One shelter worker said: “Sex workers are sometimes [dependent on] drugs; we have a zero-tolerance policy on that.” She also said that female sex workers often “disregard” the shelter’s 5 p.m. curfew, along with the government’s Covid-19 regulations.

“Sex workers … often do not stay long because they have to leave to do their work and so they violate the shelter rules as well as Covid lockdown regulation,” another person interviewed said.

“I put one sex worker in a shelter and the staff there saw her working and told us to take her to another shelter,” Dlamini said. “And there was another case where a sex worker tested positive for drugs and so was not allowed to stay.”

Sex workers usually do not even consider a shelter an option, a sex worker peer said. “The general feeling is that without a South African ID you can't access anything.”

Government Support During the Pandemic

Unlike many other governments in the region, South Africa does provide support to shelters, and the pandemic has placed many strains on government institutions and services, Human Rights Watch said. It is apparently difficult to calculate government spending on gender-based violence, but experts agree that more funding and focus is needed.

Experts said that the government was too slow to publicly note that the pandemic and the stringent lockdowns had increased the risks of gender-based violence. They said that national and local officials have never acknowledged the added dangers to some groups like sex workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants as well as LGBT people. The experts also said that it was not made clear from the beginning that shelters and other services were essential services that would remain open and that survivors could leave their houses to get help even during curfew or the various levels of lockdown. “Women didn’t know what was going on,” Bachar said. “It was unconscionable.”

South African authorities’ enforcement of curfews and lockdowns has been strict, and sometimes violent, which may have affected victims’ ability to seek help. In June 2020 a report by the Atlantic Council noted that, “Since South Africa instituted a country-wide lockdown on March 27, the number of violent incidents by police against civilians has reportedly more than doubled, with poor and vulnerable populations most affected.”

For many shelters, work with local government officials and police continued during the pandemic even if it was bumpy. Some said they got some additional assistance like funds, PPE including masks and sanitizers, and advice from the government, although more commonly from the National Shelter Movement.

A social worker at the Sahara Shelter in Durban said: “we got masks and sanitizer … whenever there was stuff available (DSD) would drop it off and they helped with deep cleaning two or three times.”

“DSD worked with us from the beginning to prepare, even before lockdown, they sent an epidemiologist to consult with shelters,” a senior worker at a large shelter of 120 beds in Cape Town said. Other shelters said that they did not get any additional support from the government and instead were dependent on the National Shelter Movement for PPE and other resources as well as guidance on how to handle social distancing for example.

The biggest problem was when funding arrived late, those interviewed said. But the overall lack of funding for shelters, even when on time was also consistently mentioned as a problem. “A lack of funding means many shelter workers earn a minimum wage even though they are essential and the work they do is so important,” said Claudia Lopes from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Lopes and Kailash Bhana, who are doing research for the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the impact of Covid-19 on shelters, and Lisa Vetten, another expert, said that two shelters in the Eastern Cape had to halt their operations because they could not afford to pay for food as they had not received government funding during the pandemic. They said that at least one shelter in the Northwest province, struggled to feed about 80 clients, some of them children, and came close to collapse because of significantly delayed government funding.

Experts also expressed concerns about the quality of a government hotline set up during the pandemic for victims. “We were shocked by the GBV [gender-based violence] hotline,” the codirector at Rise Up Against Gender-Based Violence said. “[Victims are] trapped in their homes with their abuser and you're giving them a telephone line. Many people have no phone, and [even if they do] the abuser is within earshot.”

Even when survivors could call, said Lopes, hotline workers were sometimes giving callers inappropriate advice and “deciding for themselves whether someone was eligible for shelters or not” rather than just doing referrals. In one example, she said, “the victim’s partner was a gangster, and she was needing urgent escape from the situation and the community that she lives in, but the command center told her that she was not eligible for sheltering as she could be accommodated elsewhere, essentially with her mom in the same community she had to leave for her own safety. They simply didn’t understand the dynamics.”

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