How to seek help when locked in with an abuser

Photo from iStock
Photo from iStock

Simon Dippenaar is the founder and director of private legal practice, Simon Dippenaar & Associates.

Lockdown. No one likes it. For some it means a curtailing of outdoor activities like cycling and running. For parents with young children it is a daily struggle to keep them active and entertained.

For people who live alone, it’s a very lonely time. But for most of us, it is a necessary inconvenience that we willingly accept to prevent Covid-19 spiralling out of control.

However, there is one group in the population for whom lockdown spells terror. Victims of domestic abuse and violence are now locked in – literally – with their abusers.

Our lockdown is only days old, but around the world, where movement restrictions and quarantines have been in place longer, there are reports of spikes in domestic violence.

It happened in China; it is happening in Brazil, Spain, Greece, Germany and Italy. We would be fooling ourselves to think it won’t happen here – the rape capital of the world.

The public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic may bring terrible unintended consequences for vulnerable women the world over. 

What can we do to mitigate an outbreak of gender-based violence here and help women in need?

Why violence might increase

Gender-based violence, sexual assault and rape are rarely about sex. They are about power. Rape is the ultimate assertion of power by a man over a woman.

Right now, however legitimate and public-spirited the reason for it, we are all disempowered. We cannot move about freely; we cannot pursue our normal interests and activities.

It is frustrating to be denied one’s bike ride or cinema outing. But if staying home also means one can’t engage in economic activity or meet with one’s peers, the frustration can boil over into rage.

Economic disempowerment leads to lower self-worth. Self-identity comes through work for many people. Many men also see themselves as providers.

Told to stay at home, car guards, security guards, informal traders, waiters, office cleaners, and many others have been stripped of their income, their role as breadwinner, their identity and their self-esteem. 

The alcohol ban - a double-edged sword?

Furthermore, no alcohol is available. The president’s intention was well-meaning. Alcohol fuels gender-based violence; we know this.

Asking South Africans to stay sober was an attempt to mitigate the harm that might be inflicted on women by a three-week drinking binge.

However, there is a risk the ban could backfire…in two ways. 

Firstly, not only are men feeling frustrated and disempowered, they can’t even have a drink to take the edge off the pain.

Secondly, whenever something is forbidden, human beings will find a way round the rules.

Prohibition in the US proved that. A more sensible approach might have been to restrict trading hours for alcohol. But with no liquor available legally at all, it’s hard to believe an illegal trade won’t thrive.

In the second scenario, the intention behind the alcohol ban will be neutralised. In the first scenario, it becomes even more likely that an embittered man will take out his anger on his female partner.

Watch Simon Dippenaar talk about this issue in the video below, or on Youtube:

How to seek help

The challenge in South Africa, and undoubtedly in places like Brazil that are also home to high-density, cheek-by-jowl living conditions, is…how does a woman seek help when she is trapped inside?

Countries like Germany and Greece are seeing increases in call volumes to helplines, but in Italy, where city flats are small and privacy is minimal, calls are down.

Instead, text messages and emails are up.

Domestic violence support groups are concerned that there is an even greater number of violent incidents that are simply not being reported because women can’t get out or get to a phone.

Look after each other

This is where we as neighbours and friends have to be prepared to help.

We have to assume a woman caught in the throes of a dangerous situation won’t be able to reach a place of safety or even make a call.

If you hear cries of distress coming from a nearby dwelling, don’t attempt to intervene. Call the police and let them deal with it.

They will contact social services and a social worker will be assigned to the case, removing the woman and any children to a place of safety.

If the male partner is particularly belligerent, he may be arrested, in which case he will spend the duration of the lockdown period in a cell.

Can a woman go out to seek help?

Yes. If a woman is able to leave the house, i.e. she is not physically restrained by her partner, she can walk to the nearest police station - or preferably ask a neighbour for a lift.

If she is hurt, she may wish to go to the clinic or hospital for medical attention. Both of these journeys are considered essential.

If a police patrol spots such a woman on the road, and she explains her purpose, we hope the officers will assist her and drive her to the station or hospital.

What about protection orders?

The government gazette that details the conditions of the lockdown allows for the continuance of "services related to the essential functioning of courts, judicial officers, the Master of the High Court, Sheriffs and legal practitioners required for those services".

In other words, urgent civil matters can  be dealt with, including service of protection of domestic violence orders and urgent court processes related to family law matters.

We are being asked to stay inside to protect our health. We are not expected to put it in jeopardy by other means.

It’s up to all of us

If you know someone who is vulnerable, send them a text message daily to check on them. Use neutral language.

Make it easy for them to reply in a way that looks benign if their partner checks their phone.

Share this information on local WhatsApp groups. Set up a "safe word" that anyone can use if in need of help. 

If women at risk know what to do before it happens, they are more likely to get the help they need, if things go from bad to worse. 

Where to find help

As family lawyers, our job is to protect the vulnerable members of a family. Both women and children can be at risk from abusive partners.

If you are frightened to remain in the home during lockdown, or if you know that a friend or family member is in danger or is already experiencing violence in the home, reach out to one of the contacts below.

Important contact numbers:

GBV Command Centre: 0800 428 428 / *120*7867# from any cell phone

Persons with disabilities: SMS ‘help’ to 31531

Women Abuse Helpline: 0800 150 150

Childline: 0800 055 555

SAPS Crime Stop: 0860 10111 / SMS Crime Line: 32211

GBVF-related service complaints (SAPS): 0800 333 177/

National AIDS Helpline: 0800 012 322

National Human Trafficking Helpline: 0800 222 777

Suicide Helpline: 0800 567 567

Coronavirus Hotline: 0800 029 999

Cape Town Divorce Attorneys086 099 5146/

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