Funding women’s shelters


My family and I recently went through a gruelling experience of domestic violence perpetrated against a close relative. Unfortunately, because this was a family member who had been warned against what most of us characterised as ‘crazy love’ it was difficult to sympathise with her victimhood. Without realising it, we drove a wedge between ourselves and the victim, making it difficult for her to share her experiences as the violence escalated. This very isolation intensified the violence.

As we later learnt, a key strategy used by abusive men is to isolate the victim from family and friends – and in disrupting their social network – they take away the options for escape. After years of isolation, my relative finally took the brave step to end the relationship. She reported the case to the police who took a statement and offered her the option to be taken to a domestic shelter for abused women. In her desperation, she agreed, but was turned away because the shelter was overstretched in capacity with more women than it could physically and financially support. At that point she was faced with the option of going back to her abusive partner or seeking help from family – whose advise she had shunned over the years. She chose the latter – which might be the reason that she is still alive today.

South Africa has a range of  domestic shelters that provide a place of safety for abused women in acute need. It is difficult to estimate their number, as there is no standardisation around what constitutes a shelter, with some provinces reporting facilities that provide acute care to survivors over between 24 – 72 hours as a shelter. Not nearly enough, given the high levels of violence against women, these shelters often afford women crisis management, immediate safety and an opportunity to reflect on their circumstances and weigh their options. It is estimated that women spend between 1 and 4 months on average in a shelter and that over 50% of shelter beneficiaries take the decision not to go back to their abusive partners. During the time in the shelter, they receive emotional and psychosocial support and, in some centres, vocational skills training to enhance their chances of getting employment or engaging in sustainable livelihood options.

Although domestic shelters are mandated and funded by Department of Social Development (DSD) as part of the victim empowerment programme, this funding is often inadequate to meet their basic needs. A recent study commissioned by the Joint Gender Fund, the National Shelter Movement and Henrich Boel Foundation in 2017 estimated that  DSD is currently providing as little as 25% of the actual cost of delivering the services offered by shelters. This necessitates them to seek complimentary funding often from international donors. The chronic underfunding continues to compromise the quality of services delivered which already fall short of the minimum standards gazetted by DSD.

Much can be said about the financing of the response to gender-based violence in general. South Africa has a robust legislative framework for dealing with GBV – with the Domestic Violence Act and the Sexual Offences Act – spelling out prevention programmes, mitigation services as part of secondary prevention medicolegal services and access to justice. Yet the implementation of this legislation is threatened by poor resourcing. The same report estimates that in order for shelters to be able to deliver a quality service they should be funded at R7‚223.72 per woman and her 2 children per month. This figure is based on a costing model which was developed as part of the research, and in some shelters this would constitute an up to 2000% increase in funding from DSD. It is ironic that the government currently pays up to 10  times more for inmates in correctional services than women in shelters. Whilst the security related costs for inmates make a case for higher funding – the huge difference affords inmates a better-quality life than they do survivors of GBV who end up in a shelter.

And this is not just confined to shelters. The Department of Justice has in recent years grossly underfunded the sexual offences  courts which are crucial in the processing of VAW crimes and securing the necessary convictions. To date there remains a contestation of the shift to a cheaper model, in the face of the weak capacity of ordinary courts to deal with nuances that are characteristic of domestic violence crimes. Similarly, the Thuthuzela Care Centres, a much renowned model for crisis management, minimising secondary victimisation and improving prosecution, continue to be funded sub optimally by the National Prosecution Authority and other relevant government departments including the DSD. Many of them rely on external funding to provide the necessary standard of care around the clock. Much more can be said about comprehensive social behaviour change programming which continues to be peripheral in governments funding priorities.

My relative did not have to go to a shelter – she was fortunate enough to be able to move in with family. For many women and their children – these shelters are the only option –  presenting a ray of light in a moment of darkness. Some women, turned away from shelters, are forced to go back to their abusive partners, sometimes with fatal consequences such as femicide and suicide.

It is time that government puts its money where its mouth is and provide adequate resources for the prevention and mitigation of GBV. This can only be done if the country wages a war against GBV, similar to that waged against HIV – with clear objectives, evidence-based strategies, and targets; all based on the correct assessment of causality. These strategies would have to be appropriately resourced – without which the lives of women will continue to be lost or destroyed due of the pervasive levels of GBV.

The President’s recent call for a multi stakeholder gender summit is a step in the right direction. However, success will only be guaranteed if it is not another talk shop – but makes concrete recommendations and allocates the necessary resources to achieve them. In the long term, the strategies should seek to economically empower women and transform gender relations – both key in combating GBV.

Bongiwe Ndondo is the Executive Director at Hlanganisa Institute for Development Southern Africa.