South Africa has been on state lockdown since midnight of 26 March 2020, in the government’s attempt to curb the spread of the Coronavirus and legally mandate South Africans to “stay home”. Yet, for some women and children, home is a dangerous place as domestic violence increases across the globe, South Africa being no exception.
In September 2019, the nation united protesting violence against women and children. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, domestic violence in South Africa was already alarmingly prevalent. In the first week of the lockdown, Police Minister Bheki Cele stated that police had received more than 87,000 gender-based complaints. Forcing perpetrators and survivors to stay in the same physical confines has caused incidents of domestic violence and abuse to increase in number, frequency and intensity.
The surge is due to a combination of factors, the obvious being the inability to flee the abuser physically. The loss of income for many families and emotions of fear, resentment, stress and anxiety, coupled with the lack of usual routine creates a volatile home environment. Isolating a survivor from their usual support system, a common abuse tactic, is even easier during lock-down with the abuser having increased power over the survivor’s actions.
Michelle Madden Dempsey explains that domestic violence and its related concepts consist of complex intersections of three elements: violence, domesticity, and structural inequality. Violence is not only physical and sexual. In accordance with international conceptions, South Africa also recognises psychological, emotional, financial, and other controlling and abusive behaviours such as harassment and stalking. Domesticity does not only relate to our physical environments but also relationships. A wide range of domestic relationships are susceptible to abuse, including against children, spouses, partners, parents and the elderly. The element of structural inequality is exacerbated in the South African context with economic, gender, racial and class inequality being rife. Survivors of domestic violence will generally be more susceptible to abuse because of their broader social context.
During the lockdown, the legal support structures for domestic violence and protection remain operational, with the Gender-Based Violence National Command Centre continuing work. However, helplines are being overwhelmed by the increased number of calls for help and advice. Providing redress and protection to victims has become even more difficult due to a lack of resources, people-power and COVID-related safety concerns.
While redress channels remain technically open, reaching out for help is even more challenging. Reporting an abuser during lockdown is complicated because the survivor is never alone. Survivors may not have access to phones or airtime, or public transport to take them to a shelter, doctor or police station. They may fear authorities and the police who may themselves be abusive or that their calls for help will “fall on deaf ears.” Fear of retaliation from the perpetrator is even more pronounced with no escape options or safe spaces.
In cases where survivors can seek assistance, the legal and criminal intervention processes to address domestic violence have become even more strained during lock-down with the need for protective gear and sanitation and the limitation of physical interaction. In the case of being admitted to a shelter, survivors must first be cleared of the Coronavirus and await test results quarantined in hospitals.
Cycles of abuse are not only damaging to the survivors themselves. The entire domestic structure is spoiled. Where there are co-dependent relationships, the abuse must be considered in relation to others in the domestic context. Marianne Hester writes about the need for authorities to carry out a coordinated response in a wider domestic context. Interventions focusing on the child may overlook the consequential harm to the partner of the abuser and vice-versa. Therefore, the domestic unit, as a whole, must be considered.
During lock-down, it becomes even more difficult for an adequately coordinated social and criminal response. It is not enough to theoretically have the rights to intervention, protection and redress available. Public awareness and social-driven action, even virtually, is vital in supporting survivors. Non-profits, civil society organisations and the private sector need to intervene whether in the form of donations, education awareness or government lobbying. Domestic violence is not an issue that becomes locked-away during a lockdown.