Shelters for abused women struggle to survive


Photo credit: Claudia Lopes

Another 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children has come to an end – this year marking South Africa’s 19th year of participating in this worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the negative impact of domestic and sexual violence on women and children.  However, much like every year since its onset, there is little evidence to indicate whether this campaign has positively contributed to curbing the exorbitant levels of violence meted out against the women and children of our country.

Every single day, we are reminded that South Africa is one of the most violent places in the world for women, and their children, to live.  The 16 Days of Activism is, however, a good time to reflect on the value of interventions which are making a positive impact on the lives of those affected by gender-based violence (GBV). Shelters for abused women and their children are one such intervention.

Research being conducted by the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF), through their EU-funded “Enhancing State Responsiveness to GBV: Paying the True Costs” project, indicates that shelters play a significant role in women being able to exit abusive relationships.

Shelters provide essential services to these survivors – ranging from a safe space to live to a host of other practical, psycho-social, health and legal support services such as the provision of daily meals, toiletries and clothing; assisting with helping women to access health care; assistance with applying for protection orders, following up on domestic violence cases, assisting with divorce and maintenance issues; assisting with applying for social grants and renewals of identity documents; provision of skills development and job seeking support services; and provision of care and support for the children who access the shelters with their mothers.

The research – conducted in four provinces on policy, funding and practice – indicates that most women who access shelters are young (most under the age of 36), have limited education, are unemployed, and have limited access to other forms of income such as child support grants. This means that, in addition to a myriad of health, legal and psychosocial needs; most women also largely require financial support from shelters to meet their day-to-day needs.  The research finds, however, that shelters are under-resourced and thereby appear to be under-valued.

Accessing funding that adequately covers the costs of running a shelter and providing essential services to survivors is one of the main challenges facing these organisations. Shelters operate in precarious situations, with most experiencing funding shortages, with regular threats of imminent closure or the need to drastically reduce services.

State funding to shelters is provided through the auspices of the Department of Social Development (DSD). For the most part, DSD adopts an approach of funding shelters at a rate per ‘bed’ or per ‘women’ per day. For the 2015/2016 financial year, this varied from just a little under R50 in the Western Cape and Gauteng to R63 in KwaZulu-Natal. In some instances, DSD also contributes funding towards community awareness campaigns, care packs for residents, some administrative expenses and subsidies for salaried positions of some shelter staff.

In almost all provinces, funding included a contribution towards the salaries of social workers and housemothers, while only some provinces contributed towards the salaries of shelter managers and other personnel. But while social workers salaries are generally subsidised at a much higher rate than other shelter personnel, they earn much less than an entry-level government social worker. Meanwhile, housemothers and care workers, who also play a vital role in caring for shelter residents, are subsidised at a rate which ranges from R2000 to R2500 a month.

Inadequate funding for staff posts not only places a significant financial burden on the shelter to pay their staff market-related salaries, but has a negative impact on staff morale and affects staff turnover.  At a roundtable event earlier this year, where preliminary findings of the research was first shared with various government officials, one shelter resident noted that within the space of a few months, she had seen eight different social workers, due to the high staff turnover. Another noted that she didn’t realise that “shelter staff get paid so little, for all that they do to help us and our kids.”

The rationale behind DSD’s funding “models” is difficult to understand. Shelters cannot exist on a ‘bed’ rate alone because there are a range of others costs that are required to keep them in operation and ensure that they are effective. It makes no sense to fund the ‘beds’ – at an amount that is already hopelessly inadequate – without contributing towards building maintenance, the security for keeping residents safe and skills development programmes for residents (often an unfunded mandate).

An additional factor is that most shelters do not have the staff capacity or the financial resources to provide more in-depth psychotherapeutic support to the children of shelter residents. Not adequately addressing and investing in services for children who are victims/witnesses of domestic violence could translate into a serious societal cost, since children who grow up in abusive homes are at risk of having life-long secondary trauma. They may also view violence as a legitimate or normal way of resolving conflict thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and trauma.  

The long-term financial and societal costs of violence against women, ultimately has a negative impact on everyone in society. It is therefore critical that government must fulfil its duty to ensure adequate recourse to survivors through the provision of adequate resources to shelters.

At the end of the day, prevention campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, are meaningless when essential services such as shelters struggle to survive. In a country beset with high rates of violence against women and children, we cannot afford to have shelters shut down. The impact of this, on the whole of society, is simply far too great.

Claudia Lopes is a project manager, 
Natasha Adonis is a communications officer at the Heinrich Böll the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Joy Watson is an independent feminist researcher. 

This opinion piece was adapted from a policy brief written by Claudia Lopes, Project Manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and Joy Watson. The brief can be accessed online at To stay abreast of project developments please follow the organisations on twitter via @boellza and @NSM_ZA, #TrueCostOfGbv or email Claudia via