The Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic has created a toxic soup of stress.
Disease and death have combined with lockdowns and an economic crisis in different ways in different societies, but soaring levels of anxiety, uncertainty, frustration and anger are virtually universal. Data from countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, China, India, Italy and the US show that there have been widespread associated increases in gender-based violence (GBV).
When a lockdown was imposed in South Africa, many experts assumed that our levels of GBV would rise. In anticipation of an influx, shelters serving survivors of GBV put quarantine plans in place and modified facilities so that social distancing requirements could be met.
Data drawn from the department of social development’s GBV command centre in Tshwane initially seemed to corroborate such assumptions – in the first four days of lockdown, calls to the helpline doubled – but closer examination of the statistics shows that only 3.7% of those calls related directly to domestic violence.
This helpline was widely publicised in early government briefings, but most of those who called were attempting to access other forms of assistance, including food parcels, social grants, UIF advice and matric study materials.
Nomahlanhla Mokwena from Masiphephe Network observed that, even when the calls were GBV related, the helpline was “designed to refer people on to organisations on the ground, such as Agisanang Domestic Abuse Prevention and Training in Alexandra, but they, and many like them, are hamstrung by not having been given essential service status”.
On Thursday, Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that there had been a substantial decrease in domestic violence incidents when compared with the same period last year. “The national picture reflects a decrease by 69.4% from 9 900 cases between March 29 and April 22 last year to 3 061 since lockdown [March 26] until April 20.”
If these figures reflect reality, they would be a significant silver lining in a very dark Covid-19 cloud. So, do they?
As with all complicated questions, the answer is probably yes, no and maybe.
The reduction in reported domestic violence tallies with the reduced reported cases of other crimes, such as a 72% drop in murder.
Anecdotal evidence from regional managers within the National Shelter Movement suggests that the number of women entering protective sanctuaries nationwide has neither dropped nor risen, but rather remained stable. However, a reduction in new cases opened at police stations and stable numbers at shelters do not necessarily mean a reduction in GBV.
Chrislynn Moonieyan from Masimanyane Women’s Rights in East London said: “We haven’t seen a surge of women entering our shelter. We don’t know what to make of it. It could be a real reduction, but we know that gender-based violence is always underreported. Lockdown could be exacerbating that. Covid-19 may be being used by abusive partners to further control and abuse. We don’t yet have a clear sense of how the pandemic is impacting on the ability of clients to access support and services.”
Fisani Mahlangu of the Mpumalanga Shelter Movement observed that “it might be a sign of a broader uncertainty about the future. Women know that a shelter is not forever. It is a stage to a new and different life. No one knows what is coming next, so perhaps people are reluctant to make major changes.”
Caroline Peters of the Cape Flats Women’s Movement was adamant that “the minister is very much mistaken if he thinks the rates of abuse are down. Reporting might be down, but violence is not. Remember, our streets are usually riddled with gangsters and all that violence has gone inside the houses.
All that aggression doesn’t disappear. The poverty and hunger is such that there is no money for airtime – if an abused mother has to choose between bread for her children and reporting abuse, she buys the loaf and goes on taking the abuse. The police stations are on skeleton staff and there’s no money for transport to get to them. And there are no taxis anyway. How do women get to the police or shelters?
“Abusers tell their victims that they will be arrested if they go out. And women are afraid of the virus. We have women and children with serious injuries sitting at home because they fear going to the hospital because of the threat of coronavirus.”
Domestic violence is an underreported crime that is often associated with isolation and a lack of social support. Lockdown heightens such circumstances.
Child victims of domestic and sexual abuse are especially vulnerable.
Carolyn Hancock chairs the board of Angels’ Care Crisis Centre, which serves children who are survivors of GBV, abuse and neglect from indigent homes in the Umgeni area in KwaZulu-Natal.
She said: “We are seeing fewer children coming to the crisis centre than usual. According to the regulations, children are not allowed out at all at the moment and so they can’t get out to report. The closure of schools has created further barriers to reporting because teachers are not there to pick up on problems or for children to confide in. Avenues that were previously open for problems to be identified don’t exist under lockdown. As this goes on, the children are getting more and more vulnerable. Many are starving, and hunger makes it easier for abusers to hurt and traumatise them.”
In such circumstances, multitasking becomes essential. Every week, Angels’ Care feeding scheme serves 2 000 children in the informal settlements in and around Howick, and delivers 100 family food parcels to another 600 people. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, community workers have been identifying victims of violence within the feeding scheme process and transporting the worst affected people to the crisis centre.
The pandemic has highlighted many pre-existing holes in our social safety net.
Bernadine Bachar, director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Manenberg, Cape Town, said: “We need to make better use of our community insight and networks to get to where people need help. Perhaps we could train those working with the Covid-19 community screening efforts. Whatever we do, it is imperative that we find additional ways of helping and identifying those at risk where they are.
. Adapt: adapt.org.za/
. Cape Flats Women’s Movement: 071 135 7175; Facebook #CFWM
. Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children: saartjiebaartmancentre.org.za; 021 633 5287
. Mpumalanga Shelter Movement: 079 310 9633; email@example.com
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