Lockdown: Gender-based violence call centre receives 120 000 calls in 3 weeks


On Mother's Day on Sunday, some women were showered with gifts, love and attention. For others, though, the day marked just another day in an abusive household, where the Covid-19 lockdown has escalated the physical, emotional and psychological abuse they deal with, from beatings to extended periods of silent treatment, hurtful remarks and food deprivation. 

Precious Robinson, chairperson of SACSoWACH, a coalition of 33 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which is supporting the Department of Health with its coronavirus response, says: "The national government's gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide command centre, which runs a toll-free, 24-7 emergency call centre, recorded that more than 120 000 victims rang the national helpline for abused women and children in the first three weeks after the lockdown started - double the usual volume of calls." 

This is a concern for the coalition patron, Dr Tshepo Motsepe, who believes an environment of GBV and possible food deprivation are not conducive for bringing up children healthy enough to build a better nation.

Motsepe says that the current high levels of GBV and femicide in South Africa are possibly a result of generational physical, sexual or emotional abuse happening in families, with many children also affected in their educational outcomes.


Risk is higher

"During the Covid-19 lockdown, our emergency and law enforcement services are overstretched, so more women will be harmed. GBV, in its many forms, deprives women of psychological well-being, self-sufficiency and feeling safe. As a society, that already has high levels of gender-based violence and femicide, the safety risk for women is now even higher," said Motsepe.

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"We are concerned about all women - the elderly, young, disabled, lesbian, transgender, rural, migrants and children. Even in normal circumstances, survivors of abuse and violence face a range of challenges in accessing help. These include a fear of not being believed, secondary victimisation and fear of more violence from their perpetrators.

"We hear of women who suffer in silence because their partners are providing, and others believe that their men love them more, so they tolerate jealous and aggressive behaviour. Our concern is that the lockdown may be exacerbating situations that were already dangerous before the lockdown," she added. 

"However, violence will not be tolerated. When the president launched South Africa's GBV initiative, his messages were clear:

- End all forms of violence against women and children;

- End no consequence for perpetrators;

- Make public and private spaces which are safe for women and children; and

- Allocate resources for the psycho-social and other needs of survivors.

"The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, recognising the very real danger of GBV during this time, said that it should be made a key part of Covid-19 plans. 

"We know lockdowns are essential to suppressing Covid-19, but they can trap women with abusive partners. Over the past weeks, as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence."

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He went on to underline the importance of a comprehensive global response, saying: "Women's rights and freedoms are essential to strong, resilient societies. Together, we can and must prevent violence everywhere, from war zones to people's homes, as we work to beat Covid-19." 

Not considered serious

What is worrying is the attitude shown towards GBV - that it is a foregone conclusion of South African culture, and that it is not considered serious. It should form a central consideration for allocation of resources and responses by law enforcement and social development.  

Robinson also added: "At SACSoWACH, we believe that a key area of focus is to ensure that the lockdown regulations are structured so that a woman can be able to reach out for help, leave her home to report abuse without the fear of a fine, intimidation and further violence. We are also working to ensure that accessibility to services such as Thuthuzela Care Centres, hospitals and clinics are not compromised and that all services are Covid-19 safe." 

Availability of services for sexual reproductive health is also key during lockdown. The available law enforcement should always prioritise the safety of women and children. 

The national government's GBV and femicide command centre can be reached by:

- Calling 0800 428 428;

- Sending a 'Please call me' to *120*7867#;

- Sending an SMS to 31531; and/or

- Adding 'HelpmeGBV' to your Skype contacts. 

The Skype line is intended for the hearing impaired. The SMS service is intended for the disabled.

The call centre is able to refer calls directly to the South African Police Service (10111), and field social workers respond to victims of GBV. 

- Compiled by Riaan Grobler

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