CORONAVIRUS: GBV OP-ED

It is not only the virus that could kill us

By Claudia Lopes and Natasha Adonis 15 April 2020

Protesters gather to hand-over a memorandum of grievances during gender-based violence demonstration outside Parliament, following the rape and murder of UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana on September 05, 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. While accepting a memorandum of demands from the protesters, Ramaphosa admitted that he will be addressing the issue of violence against women and children and that a state of emergency should be declared. (Photo by Gallo Images/Ziyaad Douglas)

The countrywide lockdown is necessary to curb the spread of Covid-19 but, for many, isolating in the home presents a more immediate, and dangerous, threat than falling victim to the disease.

Worldwide, countries are reporting increasing rates of gender-based violence (GBV) during their lockdowns. In China, reported cases to the police in one month were three times the number of the previous year. In the UK, calls to GBV helplines increased by 25%. In France, reported cases of domestic violence shot up by 30% and included two cases of femicide. In Argentina, at least six women have died at the hands of their partners during lockdown.

Patterns evident in these statistics are even more concerning in the South African context.

Why? Because the country already has some of the worst international GBV statistics, including those of femicide. We can be sure an increased rate of violence against vulnerable members of our society, as they are forced into isolation with abusers, is not a probability in our country. It is a certainty.

Are we prepared for it?

The answer to that question is probably no.

An all-too-familiar case

A recent case of domestic violence – which was shared on a GBV-focused WhatsApp group, a few days into lockdown – highlights a number of problems with the country’s current systems of responding to GBV.

On Day 1 of the lockdown, a university professor and gender activist from Cape Town receives a distress message from her sister. The sister, who lives in Durban, is a caregiver to their aging mother, who shares a home with an abusive, substance-addicted son. He regularly taunts and threatens the family, in between roaming the streets desperate for his next fix.

While the sister is there, caring for their mother, her brother flies into a fit of rage and assaults her. She is badly injured and desperately needs medical care.

The sister in Cape Town calls the GBV Command Centre. The social worker answering the call informs her that they needed to speak directly to the sister who has been attacked, so they can trace her location. This is done, but the injured woman is then told she must contact the police herself. This is problem number one.

In tremendous pain, the woman decides the best course of action is to get to a hospital. At 3pm, after spending most of the day at a public hospital – where she learns she has a fractured leg – she manages to get herself to the police station. The police tell her she should go home and they will come to her house later to take a statement. Problem number two.

The police arrive at 7.30pm, but do not take a statement. Instead, they tell the woman’s husband, who they meet at the gate, to pass a message on to her. They tell him she needs to go back to the police station to get a J88 form (a medico-legal document used to document injuries sustained by victims). Once she has this paper, she needs to go back to the hospital for a doctor to complete the form. Problems three and four.

The onus is on her to return the form to the police station. She has been advised this is the only way she can lay a charge against the abuser. Problem five.

Bear in mind, she has to do all this while on crutches and travelling on public transport. This is not an option. Problem number six.

Fast-forward to Saturday, Day 3 of the lockdown: the sister obtains the J88 form through a relative. She is, finally, able to lay a charge against her violent and abusive brother. This leads to a police officer going to the house of the abuser and issuing him with a “stern warning”. The officer leaves, the abuse continues. This is problem number seven.

Here is the crux of the matter: While the lockdown is a necessary intervention to flatten the curve of the coronavirus infection, we cannot pretend it will reduce all risk to South African citizens, especially for victims of domestic violence and abuse, who will now not only feel, but will actually be, more isolated than ever.

Not only must we ensure that systems in place to respond to this type of violence are effective and working, it is also time to think, and do, differently.

 There is a system – ensure it works

We must do better. Under-reporting of GBV crimes is already an issue, for a myriad reasons. When a survivor reaches out for help, we need to be sure that every single measure established to help falls into place and works as it should.

The system is not working when a helpline – established as an emergency response and the link between the victim, police and other support services – instructs the caller to call the police themselves. The system is not working when a victim is advised to go to their local police station to seek help or to lay a charge, but then is told by the police to go home and wait. The system is not working when the victim is sent from pillar to post to report a crime, when it is not their responsibility to do so. Gaps clearly remain in the system when a doctor or a nurse, often the first port of call for GBV victims, does not ask what happened when a victim presents herself at a hospital for treatment of a fractured leg and a gash across her forehead. All these entry paths failed the victim miserably.

Fortunately, the victim’s sister had the means and the access to various platforms and influential people to escalate the case. But, even then, it took far too long to get the justice this family needed. What about those without these means? What happens to them?

 Implement practical solutions

Responding to GBV, especially during the time of Covid-19, requires immediate attention. This must include the development of more practical, cohesive approaches and workable procedures.

Government must develop clear directives and guidelines, with support from NGOs working in the space. These directives should enable healthcare services, judiciary and law enforcement to respond with greater urgency, with greater co-ordination, more sensitivity and less red tape. Referral pathways to support services must be tested, strengthened and be known to all who a survivor might interface with.

The government must ensure civil society organisations rendering essential GBV services, such as shelters for victims of crime and violence, have the necessary guidelines and resources. Waiting for months for funding to be released, once a funding agreement has been signed, cannot be “business as usual”. Grants must be signed and funding disbursed as quickly as possible.

We, as human rights activists, need to continue in our oversight role as watchdogs, to ensure that systems are working. If not, these must be questioned and brought to the attention of those who are able to address the gaps. Those who fail to respond effectively must be held accountable. Critiques of these systems must be viewed as an opportunity to improve service delivery for the country’s citizens.

In addition to strengthening these systems, it is also time for creative solutions. If going to the police or calling emergency lines is not an option, then we need to consider alternative strategies. Here, the private sector can be engaged to co-ordinate a response with government and civil society organisations by providing domestic violence help-desks at local stores and pharmacies, and providing women, their children and other vulnerable citizens access to alternative accommodation, such as a hotel or an Airbnb, if not at a shelter.  

Everyone needs to play a role

The rest of society and you, the reader, need to play a part.

If you suspect someone in your immediate circle is in an abusive relationship, reach out. You may be the lifeline they need at that moment. Talk to them. Hear what it is that they need help with. If you hear cries of distress next door, do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. Do something. Call the police. Do anything that could help but that does not place the victim at further risk of harm.

If they need a shelter or want more information about women’s shelter services, contact the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM) provincial representatives. NSM is an umbrella body representing 78 shelters for abused women and children across the country.

For Western Cape, contact Bernadine Bachar on 082 903 8739 or Joy Lange on 071 906 3949; in Mpumalanga, Fisani Mahlangu on 079 310 9633; KwaZulu-Natal, Sabera Timol on 072 446 3337; Free State, Sarah Lekale on 072 144 7171; Eastern Cape, Masimanyane Shelter on 081 247 6056; North West, Rina van der Berg on 072 348 6526; Northern Cape, Clair Adriaanse on 080 021 2321 or Rosaline Bailey on 073 888 8738; and Gauteng, Rudo Muhasa on 083 684 7737 and Zubeda Dangor on 083 289 9818.

Or contact the National Shelter Movement South Africa or the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement on Facebook.

If there was ever a time for the whole of society to work together to help those in need, it is now. If we do not act, and if the systems continue to fail, as they did in the example above, then the note of caution that the WhatsApp messenger ends her sister’s story with, will be the harsh reality that we, as a nation, will have to face: “It will not only be the virus that kills us.” DM/MC

 Natasha Adonis is media  and communications consultant for the National Shelter Movement (NSM) of South Africa. Claudia Lopes is the GBV and communications programme manager of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s Cape Town office, a long-time partner of the NSM.

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