There was a concern going into the Covid-19 lockdown that the country’s high levels of gender-based violence (GBV) and domestic abuse would increase as they have in other countries that have imposed restrictions on movement.
In the first week of the lockdown, however, organisations that assist survivors have noticed a worrying trend: it’s been unusually quiet. They believe violence is continuing but clients don’t think it’s safe to seek help.
“We’re going to find out more and more post the lockdown, but we’re very concerned about it because we know that during sexual violence people suffer in silence,” said Tarisai Mchuchu-MacMillan, executive director of Mosaic, which works to reduce abuse and domestic violence.
“People are living within the violence,” she said.
The government’s GBV Command Centre received 2,300 calls and complaints between 27 and 31 March 2020. Police Minister Bheki Cele last week misstated the figure, claiming 87,000 complaints had been lodged, but that was the total number for 2019.
The 2,300 calls and complaints, which resulted in 148 suspects being charged, are still above average. The command centre, run by the department of social development, channels them to the SAPS but the figures don’t provide an accurate indicator of violence as there’s no available data on the nature of the calls or how they were handled.
SAPS said reported rape cases had dropped from 699 to 101 during the first week of the lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.
“There has been a noticeable downward trend of reporting of GBV cases in Thuthuzela Care Centres over this period,” said National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Bulelwa Makeke on the first week of the lockdown.
Thuthuzela Care Centres are located across South Africa and provide a range of services to survivors of sexual violence and abuse including forensic examination, counselling and assistance in dealing with the police and justice system.
“We haven’t seen a huge spike in cases as we would have expected,” said Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust director Kathleen Dey.
Rape Crisis works with three Thuthuzela Care Centres and Dey said there had been a 50% reduction in the number of new cases, from an average of 10 a day in the weeks prior to the lockdown to five a day.
Mchuchu-MacMillan said the outcry over GBV in the last two years led to an increase in the number of reported cases and requests for help, but there had also been a slowdown at the Thuthuzela Care Centres that Mosaic works with. The number of calls to Mosaic for domestic violence counselling had also dropped.
“The queries received have been extremely intense. One of the reasons being that travel has not been permitted,” said Mara Glennie, founder of the Tears Foundation.
A woman contacted the Tears Foundation during the lockdown. The Gauteng resident had decided to spend the 21 days with her boyfriend in Cape Town but he soon became verbally abusive.
She then stayed with a friend but the boyfriend followed, making her feel threatened. She found an Airbnb but couldn’t afford to stay long and, insecure and alone, was scared of going to a women’s shelter. She had to go to court to get a permit to return to safety in Gauteng.
People Opposing Women’s Abuse (POWA) runs women’s shelters around Johannesburg and offers support and counselling to survivors over the phone.
Executive director Mary Makgaba said POWA had received an increase in calls during the lockdown. Most were from women in relationships and related to physical and financial abuse and sexual violence. There was no corresponding influx at the shelters.
“Our findings reflected that most abused women prefer to go to friends or relatives due to lockdown restrictions hindering freedom of movement,” said Makgaba.
“We still believe that the lockdown has locked them down with abusers who are prohibiting them in exercising their rights as victims.”
The lockdown regulations make it difficult to analyse current GBV and domestic violence trends.
“We will more than likely only see a spike in reporting post-lockdown when women perceive it to be safer to report in domestic violence matters,” said Mchuchu-MacMillan.
Makeke contrasted the rise in calls to the GBV Command Centres with the decline in the number of survivors seeking help at Thuthuzela Care Centres.
“We will only be able to have a better picture of the situation after the lockdown, to see the extent of the reports when people are able to visit these facilities, to report and seek the support services available in the Thuthuzela Care Centres,” she said.
There are a number of reasons why fewer survivors might be seeking support during the lockdown.
“A lot of people are trapped in their home with their abuser,” said Dey.
Survivors often seek help while their perpetrators are at work or they make an excuse to step out of the house. That’s difficult while families are stuck at home as movements are restricted to seeking essential goods and services.
Transport and resources are also a challenge. Public transport has either stopped or is operating at limited hours and, while many people are not working, travelling to a police station or shelter can be costly.
The lockdown could also embolden perpetrators, said Mchuchu-MacMillan, with abusers saying, “You’re in a lockdown, no one is going to help you.”
“For us, there is so much uncertainty and increased risks,” she said.
Delaying access to such services could have severe consequences. Rape survivors may miss out on accessing post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), taken within 72 hours to avoid contracting HIV, and having their injuries treated. Mchuchu-MacMillan said survivors’ mental health is shown to improve the sooner they seek help.
Children are also at a greater risk. Childline South Africa national executive officer Dumisile Nala said she’s worried GBV cases could increase while people stay at home.
Nala said stress levels will increase in homes while people are concerned about work, finances, and accessing essentials such as food.
“The vulnerability of children in such environments will increase,” she said.
The government and civil society groups have stressed that support services for survivors of GBV and domestic violence remain open during the lockdown and institutions have made provision to ensure Covid-19 does not spread in facilities.
“The Thuthuzela Care Centre staff have been designated as essential services during this period and have been provided with the relevant protective material to ensure that they are protected and safe while being available to provide support to victims of GBV,” said Makeke. DM
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