What are the options for victims of gender-based violence during lockdown?

Gender-based violence calls have TRIPLED during lockdown

horizontal background woman in isolation at home for virus outbreak or hypochondria

With the COVID-19 lockdown extended, gender-based violence calls continue to escalate. What are the options for women who are in abusive relationships during the lockdown? We look at some of the harsh realities.

Related: How to Safely Leave an Abuser, Step-by-Step, Written by a Survivor


Social media code words

During the lockdown, gender-based violence activists have had to get creative. Many victims of abuse are unwilling or unable to report incidents to the police.

So, if you have access to technology, here’s a potential tool, TimesLive reports. On social media platforms (including Whatsapp), certain code phrases can indicate pleas for help. These include:

  • ‘my Tupperware order’
  • ‘my cosmetic order’

This can be helpful – in certain cases (every situation is different) – if your phone is being monitored. Add this phrase to your status or comment or message, to let your contacts know that you’re in trouble. Furthermore, adding your address may indicate that you want your contacts to call the police.

With the COVID-19 lockdown, many victims are trapped at home with their abusers and are isolated from their usual support systems (family, friends, churches).  

You can adapt the code-word method to work for you, by deciding on a particular phrase, word or even emoji. You can choose one and share this beforehand with a trusted friend or relative(s), so that when they see it on their feed or family Whatsapp group (wherever you choose), they know what it means.


Helplines and reporting

Every piece of info we’ve received has told us to stay at home. That we’re safest at home. This is simply not true for many people. What do you do when your home is a dangerous, abusive place – that you’re now totally stuck in? The government suggests the following helplines.

Helplines for abuse during the lockdown: 

If you’re being abused or know someone who is, this is how you can intervene. These lines are set up to deal with violence against women and children. They provide counselling, police intervention or shelter placement, according to the situation:

  • GBV command centre:  0800 428 428 (toll-free line) or *120*7867# (a call-back service)
  • Urgent victim response line: 0800 150 150

Reporting the police:

Police brutality is a real thing in SA. Your abuser might be a police officer. What then? There are several hotlines available to report any abuse by police officers during the lockdown.

  • Eastern Cape: 082 592 9888
  • Western Cape: 073 890 1269
  • Free State: 063 225 6081
  • Gauteng: 076 455 5718
  • Limpopo: 078 871 4811
  • KwaZulu-Natal: 079 895 2741
  • Mpumalanga: 072 881 4196
  • Northern Cape:  064 624 8203
  • North West: 078 163 6874
  • General: 079 433 2663

Other specific helplines:

The Triangle Project is there to provide support to the LGBTQI community, including referrals to shelters. They also offer a call back service.

  • For info: 066 076 8845 or 021 422 0255
  • Helpline: 021 712 6699

LifeLine’s Domestic Violence helpline

  • Call 0800 150 150

MOSAIC offers telephone counselling & referrals for survivors of abuse

  • Call 021 761 7585 (08:30 – 16:00)

Rape Crisis offers 24-hour support, including how to access Thuthuzela Care Centres for medical and forensic assistance to rape survivors

  • Afrikaans: 021 633 9229
  • isiXhosa: 021 361 9085
  • English: 021 447 9762
  • WhatsApp 083 222 5164

Related: What We Can Learn From Criselda Dudumashe’s Story of Domestic Abuse


Shelters in your province

If you need to leave your home in order to be safe, there are shelters. available. You can contact the National Shelter Movement South Africa. Here are their provincial lines:

  • Western Cape: 082 903 8739 (Bernadine Bachar) or 071 906 3949 (Joy Lange)
  • Mpumalanga: 079 310 9633 (Fisani Mahlangu)
  • KwaZulu-Natal: 072 446 3337 (Sabera Timol)
  • Free State: 072 144 7171 (Sarah Lekale)
  • Eastern Cape: 081 247 6056 (Masimanyane Shelter)
  • North West: 072 348 6526 (Rina van der Berg)
  • Northern Cape: 080 021 2321 (Clair Adriaanse)  or 073 888 8738 (Rosaline Bailey)
  • Gauteng: 083 684 7737 (Rudo Muhasa) or 083 289 9818 (Zubeda Dangor)

You can find more tips on Domestic Violence Safety Planning here.


However, GBV calls have TRIPLED during the lockdown

The National GBV Command Centre is now receiving triple the normal amount of calls. These calls are mostly from women trapped with their abusive partners in the COVID-19 lockdown.

With the huge surge in pleas for help, our essential workers are under massive pressure. Resources are stretched thin. Due to the heightened stress, 1st for Women have lent them additional support during the coronavirus pandemic.

‘The social workers are having to deal with not only the sheer volume of calls but also the horrific stories and requests for help. They are on the frontline when trying to assist women who are reporting abuse,’ says Robyn Farrell of 1st for Women Insurance.

One call centre receives between 500 and 1 000 calls a day, reports News24. Pheladi Mamaila is a social worker at the GBV Command Centre in Tshwane. She and her team counsel women who have suffered trauma and abuse in their homes. Depending on the situation, they call the police to intervene. But in dire cases, they send victims to a shelter where they can be safe.

“The phone never stops ringing. As soon as you put the phone down another call comes through,” Mamaila says.

Related: Meet the sheroes serving on the frontline during South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown


Here’s what you can do as a neighbour

Inaction perpetuates GBV, so act.

As a neighbour, when you witness (see or hear) domestic abuse, you should report it. You should always report it, but particularly during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Social development minister Lindiwe Zulu has urged us all to do this during the lockdown, Timeslive reports. If you hear something violent happening at a neighbour’s house, call it in. Don’t sit back and act like it’s not happening.

‘The fact that we are in lockdown, the fact that coronavirus is our focus, does not mean we must lose sight of the violence against women and children,’ she says.

Keep talking about consent, don’t normalize rape culture, call it out where you see it. You can contact the GBV Command Centre and report domestic abuse at 0800428428 or *120*786#.

Related: How Many Femicides Will it Take? A Champion Boxer, A First-Year Student, 3 000 Others


The problem is worse than you think

The overwhelming number of calls from women in abusive households reflects another pandemic – gender-based violence. SAPS received 87 000 gender-based violence calls during the first week of lockdown alone, according to police minister, Bheki Cele.

But South Africa is not the only country that has seen a rise in GBV during the COVID-19 lockdown. On a global scale, lockdowns are causing an increase in domestic violence. There’s been a 20% increase in domestic violence reports in Northern Ireland. Paris has seen a 32% increase. In Tunisia, there’s been a five-fold increase in violence against women. BusinessLive reports similar domestic violence increases in China and the UK too.

However, the situation here in SA is next-level f*cked up.

Not only is it estimated that one in two women experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner in South Africa (we have some of the worst GBV stats in the world), our femicide rates are also sky-high. The #AmINext movement highlighted just how deep this violence is in our society. It’s estimated that three women are killed by their partners, every day in SA.

The lockdown rules are strict in SA. And there’s currently a ban on outdoor exercise. This means that most women have no way to escape their homes or abusers for even 20 minutes.

Related: The coronavirus lockdown rules everyone in SA has to follow


Is this enough? No. We need to do better.

And here’s why.

Firstly, it’s not as easy as just dropping someone at a shelter, explains Moya Hay of the Salvation Army in Tshwane. ‘Everyone who comes to our shelter must be cleared of the coronavirus first,’ she says, ‘People waiting for test results are quarantined in the hospital until they are taken to the shelter.’

Secondly, victims of abuse who report it or speak out often risk death to do so.

‘By the time this lockdown ends, my family will be fetching me from a coffin because my husband would have killed my child and me. We won’t survive his wrath. He uses me as a punching bag,’ Mkhonto told City Press,

‘I can’t report him because, should he find out, I am a dead woman. He will look for me and kill me for ruining his reputation and I will just become another statistic.’

Thirdly, even when reported to the police, abuse is often dismissed, victims are blamed or overlooked. There is a general distrust of the police.

‘This week he tied me up and locked me up, then he forgot about me. He threatened to take my child from me if I reported it. He tells me that he has friends at the police station and they would not do anything to him. Reporting it would be a waste of time. The only time they would react was if I was dead.’

In a case like this, a shelter may be the best option. But the reality is, as a country, we are ill-equipped to handle gender-based violence on a normal day. We are certainly ill-equipped to handle gender-based violence during a lockdown. The staggering 87 000 GBV calls to the police in the first week reflects this.

Gender-based violence during lockdown presents a new set of challenges to an old problem we’ve beeeeen struggling to fight. The options for women in abusive relationships during lockdown – are pretty dismal.

Related: Government puts R500 million into fighting gender-based violence

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