According to gender activists, the lockdown due to covid-19 has tightened the grip abusers have over their victims at home.
For many women and children, the beginning of the level 5 covid-19 lockdown in March meant being locked in with their abusers and isolated from support systems and day-to-day distractions, often under boiling pressures heightened by unemployment, hunger and substance dependence. Unsurprisingly, then, the number of cases of domestic violence has been rising during the lockdown period.
Gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa has been compared to a war, a generalised attack on the bodies of women and children by men who often have the face of an uncle, a husband or a friend. The crime statistics released by police for the year from April 2018 to March 2019 counted an average of 114 reported rapes each day.
Three weeks into the lockdown it was reported that 120,000 calls were taken by the South African national helpline for victims of gender-based violence.
According to Caroline Peters, the coordinator of the Cape Flats Women’s Movement, poverty and alcohol abuse contributed to the rapid increase in violence.
“During covid-19 lockdown it was exceptionally difficult for women as there were no services; they would apply for protection orders and it couldn’t be granted because the court staff was down to skeleton staff. There was no alcohol, there was no tobacco so even drugs were not freely available – it caused frustration, there was no money in the home, there was no food so it was almost like time bombs exploding in homes where there was normally violence,” said Peters.
Nonzame Ngxamngxa* (42) is a mother of two who stays in a Gugulethu shack-home with her former husband. She says they had a physically abusive relationship for years which is why they got a divorce, but the violence became extreme during the lockdown: “I believe it got worse because he was sitting at home and not going to work. He started by cutting our electricity meter box wires and soon after that, held a knife to our child threatening to stab him. I didn’t feel protected by the police because when I would call, they wouldn’t come when I needed them but arrived on their own time.”
Ngxamngxa managed to obtain a protection order against her ex-husband when the courts opened again, with the help of Ilitha Labantu Shelter in Gugulethu. Ilitha Labantu offers shelter and support to those affected by GBV in townships and rural areas.
Since the start of the level 3 lockdown on the 1st of June when the ban on the sale and transportation of alcohol was lifted, the South African Police Service (SAPS) reported that the attempted murder and murder rates had in one year increased by 2.9% and 25% respectively.
Police spokesperson Lirandzu Themba asserted that police officers are able to deal with cases of domestic and gender-based violence effectively during the lockdown. “Officers have been trained to deal with cases of GBV at station level and our specialised Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences investigations (FCS) unit is equipped in dealing with crimes against women and children and the most vulnerable groups in society,” said Themba.
Director of Rape Crisis Centre in Cape Town, Kathleen Dey, said that when the alcohol ban was lifted, there was a huge spike in calls to their helpline and the number of clients coming through their doors when they opened their offices. Incidents of violence during the lockdown will not be reported until it is lifted, as she explained: “We saw a big reduction in the number of reports that were made and we’ll only really know what that meant when people come out of the lockdown, when people are more free to move and talk. We might only see statistics of rapes that took place in April/May in September/October.”
Police officers during the lockdown became invisible to women needing help to escape their abusers and were instead deployed in townships and poor communities to enforce compliance with the Disaster Management Act. Many victims of violence were left with no excuse to leave home and would have feared the police asking to see their permit to be out of the house if they were to try report their abusers. Cases of police brutality reported to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate between March and May rose by 12%.
Dey said that the presence of the military brought about fear and dread for brutal consequences if you were to go too far from home. “They [victims of domestic violence] may have felt that they were much safer at home than even trying to navigate the public transport system and the military laws they were under. Staying at home was not a very good message for people who had been abused and needed to get medical treatment or report it as a crime.”
Even with a protection order, Ngxamngxa still lives with her abusive ex-husband because he doesn’t want to leave the home. She says that he doesn’t care about the protection order and that he continues to be violent towards her and her children.
“He works at a car shop so now that he is back at work under this lockdown level, it is much better in the house because he is never there. My children are still scared but we sleep in a different room from him so we are able to run but also able to respond to him in defense when he starts swearing at us,” said Ngxamngxa.
With the return of the alcohol ban announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on the 12th of July and the increasing numbers of covid-19 cases, SA’s battle with the GBV pandemic spills more and more blood.