‘We came to shelter not be a statistic, but to be a survivor’ - three women reveal their experiences


Women who were forced to escape their abusive relationships thought they would find refuge, personal growth and healing at a shelter for survivors of abuse, but they were met with a system that failed them.

Lerato*, Lindi* and Ayanda* all escaped their abusive partners with their children and the few belongings they could gather.

They were all referred to Mercy Haven in Boksburg by friends and other shelters in Johannesburg, only to be reintroduced to another toxic environment.

The experiences of the women, who spoke to News24 out of desperation, are much like many others uncovered in an investigation into these shelters conducted by the Commission of Gender Equality.

Tamara Mathebula, acting chairperson for the commission, released a statement earlier this year in which she noted: "Complainants in this regard complained about lack of counselling at the shelters, secondary victimisation and abuse, as well as the general conditions of the facilities."

Lack of funding, poor infrastructure, as well as a "lack of compliance to policies and standardised practices" relating to skills development, complaint mechanisms and counselling at the shelters were also unveiled by the investigation.

The women felt they were unable to voice their concerns within the system, and had therefore turned to the media.

Lindi escaped her abusive partner with her two kids earlier this year.

"I was actually going through a rough time," she said. "There was a day where we had to sleep on the streets because we had no place to stay."

'There is no healing'

She was referred to Mercy Haven with the help of a Facebook group. She said, while the shelter had helped her get her identity documents and her kids’ birth certificates, which had been left at her partner’s house, she soon realised all was not as it seemed.

"When I got there, I was told the place is for empowerment and healing, that's what they do, which, I think, we do not get any of that," Lindi said.

She said there were no real counselling sessions at the shelter. When the clients engaged in therapy sessions with the social worker, the roles would be reversed and the social worker would instead speak about her own problems.

"We don't get any empowerment, there is no healing, we do not get counselling. I think I was on my second month [there] when they called me for a little bit of counselling, which I thought was drawing me back," Lindi added.

"When we get to the centre, we are there because we are abused, not because we are poor. So, some of the things, yes, we were eating at home, but we are there because we need healing and the empowerment that they were supposed to do, which they aren't doing." 

The women also complained that there was also no skills development. While they make blankets, they felt it was not a skill, and said the blankets were sold off to profit the shelter's staff.

"We asked them, what are we getting out of those blankets, because we are the ones working. There was no response. They are sold, and nothing is said by anyone," Lerato said.

They say that the manager of the shelter regularly raised her voice at staff and clients. They also added that there was a difference in how white and black clients were treated at the shelter, with preference given to white clients.

'For them it's like they are doing us a favour'

The women added that the manager had insisted on rationing food and necessities for the clients, limiting nappies to three a day for clients with babies.

For all these women, it was incredibly difficult to stay at the Mercy Haven, but they had nowhere else to go.

Lindi explained: "I could have run to my family, but I felt like if I go there the perpetrator will find me. I thought a shelter is a safe and healthy environment for me to come back to my senses and empower me. But it's actually now putting more stress and pressure on me. For them it's like they are doing us a favour.

"I think the DSD is also failing us as women of South Africa with these shelters, because while I went and read about Mercy Haven, the shelter was closed down because of this management… I've been there for almost three months, but I've never seen anyone from the department coming to see what's happening there so that the problem does not happen again."

Despite this, the shelter only allows their clients to stay for a period of three months which, they say, is not enough to get their lives back on track.

Lerato said, when her time was up in April this year, she panicked.

"I didn't have a Plan B, because I'm not working. So, instead of getting help, the social worker [at the shelter] told me to go look for homeless shelters, until one of the housemothers got involved and talked to the chairman of the board, that's why I’m still there," she said.

"What can you do in three months’ time? You have to heal, you have to find a job."

The women say there are no channels to voice their concerns. When they tried to take these matters up with the Department of Social Development, the officials tipped the shelter off.

'This time there was a death threat'

They say they do not feel safe in the shelter and are scared that they could be kicked out at any time.

Lerato said she had no other options. 

"I don't have [a] choice, I am not going back to my perpetrator. I'm done with that one. I went to the shelter before, I went back to him. This time there was a death threat, so I can't go back there.

"We came to [the] shelter not be a statistic, but to be a survivor," 

Ayanda agreed with this.

"We go to shelters for healing and we are running away from our perpetrators. If we get treatment like this, we go back to them. We don't know what could happen back there because maybe he will kill you for just leaving," she said.

"And the rate of women being killed in SA by their partners, this is not helping at all." 

Department of Social Development spokesperson Motsamai Motlhaolwa told News24 that they would investigate.

"The department notes these serious allegations with concern. Our regional office in Ekurhuleni will investigate the matter and announce the findings once investigation is concluded.

"The department remains steadfast in its efforts to provide shelter for abused women and, so far, the programming is doing well and is benefiting many survivors of violence who are in dire need for protection."

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