Maverick Citizen


A toxic broth: Covid, domestic violence, housing and homelessness

Confined interior space in an informal house, Western edge of Soweto, Johannesburg. (Photo: Mark Lewis) Picture 1

Much homelessness, including in less obvious urban spaces, is dominated by men. Women tend to be less visibly homeless, but endure unseen insecure and unsuitable housing conditions. Yet the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness is complex, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Dr Paula Meth is a Reader & Director of Student Experience at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, University of Sheffield, England.

Globally the Covid-19 pandemic has led to sharp rises in domestic violence. Associated lockdowns have curtailed citizens’ movement and social interaction. Employment and livelihoods have been severely damaged and social isolation has risen alongside worrying mental health trends.

UK trends in meeting up with people May 2020 – Jan 2021

For women living with abusive partners, or in households where strained relations were a norm, the pandemic has proved catastrophic. 

In June 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa described a “dark and shameful week” as gender violence and femicide rates soared. Demand for helplines, shelters, police and social services has soared. Concerns have risen over the difficulties for women stuck at home with perpetrators in accessing support, and innovative technology has been employed to support victims. 

Alcohol bans, curfews and the closure of taverns in South Africa yielded mixed outcomes, with violent crimes and hospital trauma cases declining, but gender violence increasing

The increased presence of police on the street to enforce lockdown measures is likely to have reduced women’s ability to leave abusive homes. Government grants during the pandemic have reached more male recipients, despite women suffering greater job losses, undermining the capacity for women’s independence. 

One tragic outcome of domestic violence is homelessness. Women may flee violent home spaces, with no alternative refuge, or be evicted by abusive partners. Landlords have also been known to evict households where violence is prevalent. Abuse can lead to financial precarity, impacting on rental or mortgage payments. Much homelessness, including less obvious urban spaces (Charlton, 2019) is dominated by men. Women tend to be less visibly homeless, but endure unseen, insecure and unsuitable housing conditions. Yet the relationship between domestic violence and homelessness is complex, and particularly during the pandemic. The homes (and access to housing) where domestic violence occurs, vary significantly, as does access to shelters and support.  

In South Africa, domestic violence occurs across all classes of society and all household types. The “home” shapes how everyday domestic violence is experienced, with the pandemic accentuating this. Homes are a partial proxy for women’s capacity to manage domestic violence, as income affects women’s abilities to escape. 

What are some of the different elements of the home that matter during the pandemic for poorer women experiencing violence?

  1. Very simply, size matters. Lockdown and travel restrictions have put the spotlight on homes, enforcing new ways of using confined spaces, sharing rooms for work, or job seeking, domestic tasks, exercise, leisure and homeschooling. Tensions tied to lack of privacy, space and noise are intimately affected by the number of rooms, internal configuration, bathrooms and outside space of different homes. In the UK, a demand for larger properties, with gardens, has grown since the pandemic’s onset. Demand for flats has fallen. But these trends depend on socioeconomic capacity and the availability of housing affordable for those seeking change (Potts, 2020). In cities dominated by poorer households, “upscaling” to larger housing is unfeasible, as is movement between housing types. The nearly four million residents who have benefited from state-provided housing in countries such as South Africa must contend with relatively small spaces. Most current 40m2 structures have two bedrooms (Charlton and Meth, 2017), however, earlier versions were far smaller, with just a single bedroom. Many informal structures are similarly constrained. It is inevitable that confined spaces will fuel tensions. For those who have lost jobs, downsizing may be an outcome, reducing further the comfort of housing.
  2. Control also matters. It is often poorer women who are forced to flee their homes because of domestic violence. A lack of resources to pursue claims to a property drives many women into homelessness. Once again, recent state housing in South Africa has worked hard to reverse the historical gendered inequality where black women could not own properties. In some areas, new state housing for the urban poor has specifically targeted female beneficiaries. Prior to the pandemic, there were some indications that this was supporting women to remain in their homes with their children in situations of conflict. Men in these cases were required to move out, particularly if enforced through court orders. But female ownership across all housing is, on the whole, uncommon, and the high levels of job losses for women are likely to undermine this potential benefit as women struggle to afford housing.
  3. Neighbours matter: Housing within informal settlements dominates most cities in the global South, and for women experiencing domestic violence, it is a core site of abuse. This housing is contradictory for experiences of domestic violence. Their urban residents are living on the edge of survival, struggling with the trauma of poverty and unemployment. These structural pressures foster violence, both domestic and criminal. Every day is a challenge for residents. At the same time, the often flimsy informal housing and their relative density mean that neighbours do hear fighting and screams for help. This can benefit some women’s experiences of violence. Community networks can also be stronger. This contrasts with the lack of neighbourly support women living in more private housing experience, although lockdown has shifted neighbourly interaction in these contexts.
Collection of water in an informal settlement in eThekwini, Durban. (Photo: Mark Lewis)
  1. Escaping the house matters: Informal settlements were a focal point during South Africa’s early lockdown. Limited access to proper toilet facilities and water to wash hands was a critical concern. Living in structures lacking sanitation necessitates leaving your house. For victims of violence, this can afford small, possibly inconsequential, possibly life-saving opportunities for interaction with others — providing a chance to talk, to use a phone, to ask for help. Women’s attendance at food donation sites has proved valuable for accessing shelters. More research is needed to understand how living informally during the pandemic — with associated crises surrounding facilities, unemployment and poverty — affected gender relations and domestic violence.
  1. Rural homesteads may matter. Finally, many South Africans chose to return to their rural homesteads during lockdown. This was tied to the pandemic’s dire impact on urban income opportunities, the inability to physically distance in dense environments and the need to be with family during a time of crisis. These migrations have caused much anxiety nationally, as fears of the virus being spread to ill-equipped rural areas have been voiced. But how might migration choices intersect with experiences of domestic violence? Pre-pandemic, rural settings were viewed as bastions of patriarchy. Did the burden of returning migrants fuel domestic violence, as anxiety over the virus and a lack of food and money grew? Did the enhanced network of grandparents and extended family present in rural contexts provide much-needed support to women? Rural second homes reduce the risks of absolute homelessness through domestic violence. Yet their distant locations undermine accessibility to the core features of urban living, hence their overall value for women.

The unfolding of the domestic violence crisis during the pandemic shines a light on how appalling this trend was already, and how gendered the pandemic’s impact has been. Yet there is much we still do not understand about the specifics of domestic violence during periods of lockdown and pandemic-induced economic crisis.

We need more work on how the pandemic has affected gender relations, gendered economic inequalities, housing choices and contradictory links between alcohol bans (in South Africa) and violence. Furthermore, the pandemic resourcing of security and policing to enforce lockdown measures, justice services and refuges all need assessment. DM/MC


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