Jennifer was 18 years old when she married Chris. Soon after their marriage, Chris began to beat her and verbally and emotionally abused her. One night, in a drunken rage, Chris woke their sons, aged 12 and 13, at 3 o’clock in the morning and ordered them to light a fire for a braai. It was a bitterly cold night and the boys sat shivering, trying to light the fire while Jennifer tried to lull her husband back to sleep by gently stroking his head. Eventually, he fell asleep but awoke after an hour. In a rage, he turned on Jennifer and started hitting her. Jennifer’s eldest son grabbed a knife and shouted at his father, “Tonight I am going to kill you and I do not care if I go to jail for it!” Jennifer knew that her turning point had come. She would not allow her son to rot in jail for punishing his father for years of sustained abuse. Taking the boys, she fled down the road in a see-through nightdress. She sought refuge at a shelter that night. Over the course of the next three-months she received counselling to work through the violence she had been subjected to, found employment and left Chris for good. Through the interventions offered by a shelter, she was able to turn her life around and begin the long process of healing the scars of unspeakable violence and trauma.
Jennifer’s story is one facing many women. In the period September 2010 to December 2010, South African Police Service (SAPS) reported an estimated 35 495 cases of domestic violence to Parliament. Given the under-reporting in this regard, this figure is estimated to be far higher. Shelter services fall under the ambit of the government’s Victim Empowerment Programme (VEP), a key component of the crime prevention strategy. The VEP’s policy vision is to provide adequate service delivery interventions to support victims of violent crime. Yet in practice this is often far from the case. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, through a project funded by the European Union, released the findings of a study conducted at three shelters for victims of domestic violence in the Western Cape, St Annes; the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children; and Sisters Incorporated.
The research found that the Western Cape Department of Social Development provided a subsidy of just under R30 per day for each woman and each child that accompanies his or her mother to the shelter. This amount has since increased to about R33 per woman. The allocation of funds to shelters is dismal, even prisoners receive more than this with the Department of Correctional Services allocating an amount of R313 per prisoner per day. This seriously calls into question the priority accorded to victims of gender-based violence.
Most women who come to the shelters are poor with no source of income, with no place else to go and often bringing very young children with them. The shelters need to cater to the practical needs of these women and children. This includes, among others, clothes, toiletries, food, health care and counselling and transport. The Department of Social Development in the Western Cape allocates a mere percentage of its total budget of R1.3 billion to the VEP. In the 2011/12 financial year, the department had set a target of 3 091 women and children accessing VEP shelter services. In actual fact, an estimated 5 860 people made use of the shelters during this time, almost double what was envisaged.
In the 2011/12 financial year, St Anne’s received a total of R451 642 in government funding, a mere 48 percent of its operating expenses. Sisters Incorporated received R285 600, less than a third of its operating costs, while the Saartjie Baartman Centre (SBC) ran at a deficit of R148 089. The SBC had reached a point of being in dire financial straits and had to retrench staff in order to cut costs. Yet these shelters play a critical role in keeping many women and children safe from violence and are instrumental to getting them to a point of healing.
The study found that many of the women going into shelters suffer from serious ailments such as depression, psychiatric conditions, HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. The long-term costs of not providing shelter services are far greater than allocating the estimated R114 per woman per day for adequate service provision. Violence has far-reaching ramifications, including an economic cost. The victims of violence suffer a myriad of health-related consequences and this, in turn, impacts on their lives in many ways, one of which is their ability to be at work on a regular basis and in a frame of mind where they are able to be productive. Shelters offer so much more than a safe place for women and their children to stay. Many offer services such as crèches and children’s projects, counselling and group work, legal advice, opportunities for training in both life skills and in helping women find employment. The study in fact shows that many women who leave shelters have been assisted by shelters to enter into the economy, thereby creating a source of income.
In 2009, following public hearings on domestic violence, the Department of Social Development made a commitment to setting up two shelters annually per province over a period of five years. It indicated that this was dependent on funding being available. No new shelters had been built during the time-frame of the research. Currently, many shelters are in funding crisis and the threat of closure is always a real one. Most shelters have had to work exceptionally hard and resort to extraordinary measures to make ends meet. Funding constraints negatively impact on service provision and one example of this is the limitations in offering counselling to children who are victims of domestic violence.
Ultimately, the reassessment of the support provided to shelters is a human rights issue. It is what is owed to women and children who bear the brunt of violence in the sanctity of their homes. It is time that we start counting the real, long-term costs of not providing adequate support and assistance to victims of domestic violence and the consequences of living in an endless cycle of horror and torment.
The report can be downloaded here.
- Joy Watson is a feminist researcher with 19 years’ experience in feminist activism. Her research areas of specialisation include women in politics, women and governance, violence against women and analysing public policy and expenditure from a feminist perspective.