Domestic Violence in South Africa

Image: Khayelitsha, South Africa

This week has seen the global number of COVID-19 cases surpass 8.5 million, with many countries worldwide continuing to implement some form of lockdown measures. As the country with the highest number of infections on the African continent (over 90,000 cases and 1800 deaths as of June 22nd), South Africa has been no exception, introducing one the strictest lockdown policies of any country. In place since midnight on March 26th, South Africa’s exceptionally strong lockdown involved the deployment of almost 25,000 security forces personnel to enforce the strict new regulations (more than 17,000 arrests were made for lockdown violations in the first 6 days alone), and a ban on the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. These measures stayed in place for over two months, with the first relaxation of restrictions to a ‘level three’ response only happening on June 1st.

While the implementation of lockdowns across the globe have successfully prevented even greater rates of infection and death, they unfortunately bring with them an unintended, deadly consequence – an increase in domestic violence. An upsurge in violence has been reported in all corners of the globe: in Hubei, the Chinese province at the epicentre of the original outbreak, domestic violence reports rose by over 300% during February. In Malaysia and Lebanon, calls to hotlines have doubled on the previous year. A recent report by the United Nations Population Fund explores the recognised increase in domestic violence cases since the onset of lockdown around the world, stating the primary reason for increased rates of violence as the simple fact that stay-at-home orders and restrictions on movement increase women’s exposure to violent partners. An increased amount of time in the presence of an abuser increases the likelihood that a victim will be subject to a violent attack.

The economic pressure felt in households worldwide resulting from COVID-related involuntary unemployment, reduced salaries and redundancies also contributes to this phenomenon, as financial stress increases incidences of domestic violence. Nearly 60% of women globally are employed in service industries (such as childcare, retail and hospitality) and countless numbers in the informal economy, which are disproportionately affected by current restrictions due to the difficulty of fulfilling such roles remotely. In South Africa, over one third (35.9%) of women who are employed are employed informally. This means women are uniquely impacted by the economic consequences of COVID. This loss of financial security decreases a woman’s economic independence, further reducing their freedom from violent partners and giving them even fewer resources with which to flee a setting of violence.

The increased strain on domestic violence support services is another factor contributing to this ‘second pandemic’ in countries around the world. Lockdown measures and transport restrictions reduce the ability of domestic violence workers to physically meet survivors, or for survivors to access friends and family who act as their support networks. Domestic violence shelters and meeting spaces have in some cases been shut down or repurposed as intensive care clinics or homelessness shelters, with technical issues and staff illness further reducing their capacity to assist victims.

As a country where seven women are killed every day and a reported 40-50% of men have admitted perpetrating physical partner violence, South Africa was already tackling an epidemic in domestic violence before the onset of lockdown. Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Cape Town last September in response to rising rates of violence, prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare femicide a national crisis and promise new measures including dedicated sexual offences courts and harsher penalties for perpetrators. There were therefore fears that South Africa would be especially vulnerable to a spike in domestic violence cases resulting from lockdown measures, and early reports indicated this was indeed the case – a founding member of one women’s NGO reported in mid-April that domestic violence shelters were already reaching capacity.Furthermore, from the start of the lockdown to May 1st, the Gender Based Violence National Command Centre (which has remained fully operational throughout the pandemic) had received 12,000 calls. Yet official data released by Police Minister Bheki Cele indicates that domestic violence cases were down 69.4% and hospital admissions for trauma down 66% in the month of March compared to the previous year, suggesting the trend in South Africa may not be clear cut. How can we make sense of this drop in reported cases amongst the increased vulnerability to violence that women are experiencing at this time?

A key element of the South African lockdown has been the total ban on the sale of alcohol, which may have curbed violent or abusive behaviour to a certain extent. The World Health Organisation recognises that “alcohol consumption, especially at harmful and hazardous levels, is a major contributor to the occurrence of intimate partner violence” and records that in South Africa, 65% of women experiencing spousal abuse within the last year reported that their partners always or sometimes drank alcohol before the assault.

Image: Protesters in Cape Town. Nic Bothma/EPA

Secondly, the strict nature of lockdown rules in South Africa mean that it is more difficult for victims to report cases and some women are simply unable to do so, meaning the reported number is highly likely to be an underestimate of the true figures. Restrictions on movement outside of the home mean women intending to report abuse or flee may have no valid excuse to give their abuser for leaving the house, and as highlighted earlier, they may be unable to seek refuge in a shelter or other safe space due to those spaces being repurposed or temporarily shut down. Fear of harsh punishment if caught breaching lockdown regulations by one of the 25,000 security personnel enforcing the policy may also deter women from seeking help outside the home. Within the home, many women may now be spending 24 hours a day in the presence of their abuser, rendering it often impossible to make phone calls seeking help or reporting abuse. While some NGOs are striving to establish online and text message services and national hotlines remain open, this only partially mitigates the problem. Intimate partner violence has always been a grossly underreported crime, with a reporting rate of under 40% before COVID-19, so reporting may be far below 40% now due to the unique difficulties presented by lockdown measures. In recognition of this dilemma, the United Nations has stated that “in the case of restricted movement and limited privacy, women are finding it difficult to phone for help. So, the likelihood is that even these figures represent only a fraction of the problem.”

Earlier this month South Africa implemented the first relaxation of its lockdown measures to a ‘level three’ response, sending an estimated 8 million people (of a population of 58 million) back to work. There are hopes that this will provide some respite for domestic violence victims, allowing them more time away from their abuser and a better chance to contact support networks if they or their abuser are now returning to work. Domestic violence services will also benefit from an increased capacity to help victims, but the resumption of sales of alcohol from June 1st as part of this first phase of relaxation casts doubt upon whether the safety of women in South Africa will improve as a result of these measures. One thing that is certain is the importance of South Africa, and all other countries, ensuring they employ and prioritise a gender-responsive strategy within their COVID-19 responses for the duration of the pandemic. If they fail to do so, and instead choose to de-prioritise gender-based violence during this crucial time, the overall indirect death toll from COVID-19 will be much, much higher.

To support survivors of violence in South Africa through the Women and Girls Solidarity Fund, click here.

This article was written by Holly. Holly is 23 years old from East Sussex, England. Since graduating with a degree in Politics and Economics in 2018 she has worked and volunteered in Africa and Asia and is currently living in China. Her interests include human rights, international security and development.