'What is it that I was helped with?' Abuse survivors share stories of neglect at shelters

The Commission for Gender Equality is probing the state of shelters in South Africa and treatment of survivors. (Jonathan Lestrade, Netwerk24)
The Commission for Gender Equality is probing the state of shelters in South Africa and treatment of survivors. (Jonathan Lestrade, Netwerk24)

Rebecca* spent 10 years with a husband who liked to control every bit of her life – where she worked, who she visited and where she went. She was emotionally bullied and sometimes physically abused by her husband in those 10 years, until she decided enough was enough.

“It was a very toxic relationship that I felt I needed to be out, however, I didn't have a place to go because I didn't have a home,” Rebecca told News24.

When she decided to leave, she had no idea what to do or where to start but was eventually referred to Amcare – a shelter for survivors of violence in Alberton, Johannesburg.

Rebecca, however, said her stay at the shelter turned into a nightmare. She recounted her experiences of bullying by untrained staff members and having no access to proper skills development and counselling sessions.

Rebecca’s story is like many other survivors of violence uncovered in an investigation by the Commission for Gender Equality into the state of shelters in South Africa and treatment of survivors.

In a statement by the Commission, acting chairperson Tamara Mathebula said the investigation aimed to curb gender-based violence.

“This particular state obligation has now become important in light of the current state of [gender-based violence] GBV in South Africa. In other words, it has become essential to assess the conditions of shelters amidst the high levels of GBV,” Mathebula said.

The investigation uncovered host of issues including:

  • a lack of funding for shelters and infrastructure issues,
  • a lack of transitional housing /second stage housing,
  • survivors struggle to adapt to normal living conditions,
  • lack of compliance with policies and standardised practice regarding skills development, counselling, maximum and minimum periods of stay.
  • no standardised approach to accommodate and assist survivors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, asexual and other diverse sexual orientations and gender identities (LGBTIQA+) community.

As a result, the Commission called for a public investigative hearing which will hear from the heads of the Department of Social Development (DSD) in all provinces as well as the director generals of the DSD and the Department of Human Settlements.

These are also some of the conditions Rebecca found at Amcare upon her arrival.

READ |'I almost drank Rattex,' says abuse survivor at shelter funding picket

“The thing I most needed was the shelter and the legal [assistance] just to make sure the kids get maintained and that continues regardless of what I have,” Rebecca said.

“Now I don't have to go back to the perpetrator's house… I had a space where I could sleep… If I have a place to live, food that is provided then I can fight him in that space because I have the support system.”

“But I haven't done anything,” she added.

Rebecca said the core of their problems stem from the staff of the shelter who do not have adequate training to help survivors.

The clients in the shelter, Rebecca said, normally have one session with the social worker when they arrive, but very little after that.

“You don't see the social worker. To the new clients who come in she said, 'you guys are giving me stress',” Rebecca said.

Lack of personal growth

Busi* was at Amcare with Rebecca after she left her partner who almost beat her to death.

She said that she was in a fragile state when she came to the shelter but got no help from the staff.

“The therapy you get there, it's among ourselves as clients, by sharing each other's experiences that's the only therapy - by ourselves,” she explained.

Busi said the staff mostly ignored the concerns of the clients, making snide remarks and calling them names when they complain about their treatment.

"People in that company, I don't know why they become the meanest when people in their surroundings need help. We're not sure that the Amcare manager is aware of what's happening,” she said.

While they are confined to the shelter due to a pass system which, the women say, hardly ever lets them leave, Rebecca said, there are no adequate developmental programmes that aid personal growth.

 “By the time three months passes you haven't done anything that has to do with you personally, that's growing you personally,” she said.

READ MORE: Finding shelter from the abuse that women and children face

Amcare manager, Marihet Infantino conducted her own investigation based on these claims. Infantino denied that all staff members were bullying clients, however, her investigation found one housemother who was not respectful in her interactions.

Infantino said disciplinary action would be taken against this housemother.

She said that the social worker holds counselling sessions with clients, but this must be scheduled. Often the social worker cannot cope with the number of clients in the shelter and sessions would take longer to schedule, according to Infantino.    

“The ladies did receive counselling, I have checked the records,” Infantino said.

She added that the DSD do not fund skills development, “if you sit with 15 ladies in the shelter and they do nothing the whole day, what do you think happens? A bunch of women, different cultures, different races – they kill each other in the end.”

The skills development, Infantino said, is an attempt to keep the women busy with something that could be a simple profit-making business later.

Rebecca, however, said she eventually had to leave the shelter and is now staying with her father. She struggles to find work and get back on her feet.

 “I'm out now, but what is that I was helped with except the fact that I didn't have accommodation at the time?” she said.

“The time delayed. For me staying there, unable to move forward, look for work… I could have been somewhere if I was in a freer space where… the shelter is helping you and at the same time they are allowing you to go out,” she reflected.

Busi had the same sentiment and said she only stayed at Amcare for two months before she had to leave – her life was not moving forward, “In my mind, when I came to Amcare I thought this was the place to be. I thought in three months I could save up something until I move out, and then I'll be able to start something while I'm there. But I couldn't do all that.”

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