In his address to the nation on 17 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa reported that at least 21 women and children had been killed in South Africa during the past few weeks. When the country initially moved into lockdown in March in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, there were fears of a surge in gender-based violence (GBV), a pattern which had been seen in other countries.
However, this anticipated spike in violence was not borne out by the statistics at the time – Minister of Police Bheki Cele reported in April that reports of domestic violence and rape had dropped by 69% and 87% respectively compared to March 2019. There were mixed reports from service providers such as hotlines and shelters as to whether they experienced a surge in demand under lockdown.
Incidences of GBV may indeed have dropped during this period, but it is also likely that many cases of GBV were simply not being reported. Although measures were put in place to enable survivors to access support and report violence (eg zero-rated telephone and online services and permission under lockdown to leave the house to report GBV to the police), those living in controlling and violent situations around the clock may not have the ability to make use of these resources even if they can access them.
It is likely that we are now facing the predicted surge in GBV and femicide cases. With movement restrictions relaxed, there may be an increase in survivors able to report violence or seek help, as well as a genuine increase in violence as the pandemic continues to place stress on families and communities. Alcohol abuse is another driver of GBV, so the reintroduction of (legal) sales of alcohol is an additional complicating factor in a country with high levels of substance abuse, trauma and violence.
This is therefore a critical time to ensure that measures are in place to respond rapidly and appropriately to GBV. While factors such as alcohol abuse, lockdown and the pandemic itself are contributing factors to violence, the response should not be decontextualised. Tshikululu’s analysis of GBV is based on the ecological model, which recognises GBV as a complex problem which is caused by factors at all levels, from the individual to the societal. With this in mind, we recommend the following key considerations for social investors looking to respond to GBV in the context of Covid-19:
- Resource both response and prevention: the most urgent need at present is to invest in response services such as shelters, Thuthuzela Care Centres, helplines, and community groups that can provide support to survivors on a local level. In the current context, some of these services will be under increased strain not only because of increased demand, but because they will need additional resources to meet distancing and hygiene requirements. The need for investment in response services extends beyond the pandemic, however, and the necessary work of GBV prevention must continue alongside it, focusing on the factors at all levels of the ecological model.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: South Africa’s GBV sector has a strong history of working to bring about change, although it is chronically under-resourced. Investors should seek to partner with organisations that are already working to address GBV, prioritising investment in women’s organisations, especially those working at community level.
- Respond to the context: poverty and inequality are among the drivers of GBV, and the pandemic has heightened these challenges, leading to increased stress and pressure for many. Direct, practical support to families and communities through cash transfers, vouchers and other means of easing the challenges of poverty play a role in mitigating the likelihood of violence and at the same time creating a more enabling environment for survivors of violence to seek help.
- Centre the most vulnerable and marginalised: the rights and needs of vulnerable and marginalised people such as LBGTQIA+ people, sex workers, migrants, disabled people, and people in rural areas need to be considered integral to the response to GBV. This ensures that the intervention is inclusive of a diverse range of people, many of whom struggle to access services and support.
GBV is a complex and deep-rooted problem in South Africa. Responding to GBV during the Covid-19 pandemic is essential, but approaches should also take a longer-term view through the lens of the ecological model. In doing so, social investors are better able to make informed decisions about partnerships, resources and interventions, now and in the future. DM