How to leave an abuser despite an empty purse


Johannesburg - It’s hard to understand why anyone would stay in an abusive relationship, but the reality is that many women, particularly in South Africa, do just that.

The reasons vary, from wanting to stay with their partners for the sake of the children and the fear of being alone or provoking more violence, to keeping the family together because of family or community pressure.

Many women also believe they won’t be able to make it on their own financially, particularly if they have little or no money.

Splitting up can be expensive.

You have to consider finding a home and if you intend to rent you’d need a deposit for your accommodation, sometimes two months in advance, a job and a good credit score.

Buying is even harder as, generally, banks won’t offer you a bond without a sizeable deposit (at least 10%), and again you’d need a favourable credit score and a stable job.

Currently, government allocates a portion of the national budget to the department of social development, which assists in funding shelters for abuse victims, but no allocation is made in the form of grants.

The department gets R180 billion (11% of its total budget), but gender-based violence interventions and initiatives don’t get much financial support.

According to recent research by the National Shelter Movement of SA and the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the sustainability of shelters throughout the country is severely compromised by government’s failure to effectively fund shelters for abused women and children.

Often, victims of abuse feel trapped if they don’t have family and friends to rely on, and particularly if they don’t have a steady job, income or savings to rely upon.

While leaving your abusive spouse may seem scary and bewildering, the good news is there is a support structure in place in spite of the fact that there is little funding out there for initiatives protecting women from abusers.


Dorothea Gertse, a social worker and the shelter manager at the Saartjie Baartman Centre, advises women in an abusive relationship to get to a police station.

Domestic violence is regulated by the Domestic Violence Act, which was introduced in 1998 with the purpose of affording women protection from abuse and creating law enforcement bodies such as the SA Police Service to protect victims.

“If you are stuck, you must go to your nearest police station and they should take you to a place of safety. You don’t have to open a case.

"When they don’t take your case seriously or an officer is not helpful, insist on speaking to the captain or someone else higher up the chain, as it is their duty to help,” advises Gertse.

Shelters such as the Saartjie Baartman Centre don’t expect you to pay for accommodation, clothing or food and often have programmes to revive your confidence back up and get you financial support by helping you find employment.

Getting a protection order (also known as a restraining order) is free, and this should protect you and prevent your abuser from harassing you.

Gertse says you can also apply for emergency monetary relief through the courts.

This means your spouse has to provide you with maintenance or provide you with money to cover rent or bond repayments.

Following a divorce, you can also apply for maintenance to support you after the split.

If you need legal assistance and can’t afford it, there are organisations that can help for free (pro bono), such as the Law Society of SA and the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC).

The WLC has satellite offices in Khayalitsha and a help desk based in the Cape Town Family Court. In 2015, at least 1 101 women were given legal advice here.


The good news is that it is possible to achieve financial independence after an abusive relationship.

According to a survey of 100 domestic-abuse survivors conducted by the 1st for Women Foundation, 90% of women who leave abusive relationships become financially independent.

It doesn’t happen overnight, though – 31% of the abuse survivors said that it took a year to regain their confidence following an abusive relationship, whereas others took three months to two years to regain control of their lives.

“For some women the decision to leave an abusive relationship is instantaneous, while for others, it is one that is reached over time,” says Robyn Farrell, trustee of the 1st for Women Foundation.

While there are safe houses available, the majority of the women surveyed found support from people close to them, so it’s important to reach out if you have a supportive network.

“At least 78% of the women surveyed left an abusive relationship thanks to the support of their mothers, friends and/or family,” adds Farrell.

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