Violence against women: A state of failure

When Livhuyo Vhadau* was seven months pregnant and went for a sonar scan in Hamakhuvha in Limpopo’s Thulamela local municipality, she was not suspicious when the doctor, whose name is being withheld for legal reasons, allegedly asked her to take off her maternity top before lying on the examination table.

According to 22-year-old Vhadau, who told her story to the Mail & Guardian and has given a statement to local police, the doctor manoeuvred the scanner around her stomach for a bit before asking her to take off her trousers as he had “trouble feeling the baby”.

Then he asked her to spread her thighs and brought her a stool to support one of her legs. Vhadau still thought everything was alright. The doctor stood between her legs and asked her to remove her underwear—before molesting her with his hands.

As he violated her, he apparently tried to placate her with flirtatious talk, even inviting her to his home after she had given birth.

Vhadau didn’t report the incident immediately. But two hours later, the doctor allegedly raped another patient, a 21-year-old woman, who went straight to a police station before being taken to the Tshilidzini Trauma Centre for counselling and a medical examination.

The centre is one of just two in the Thulamela municipality, the other being Donald Frazer Trauma Centre. Both are based in the hospitals they are named for and are run by the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme (TVEP), which offers advocacy and trauma services for victims of rape and domestic abuse.

Only a few days later, after a TVEP legal officer went to the doctor’s rooms, did the extent of his apparent treachery begin to unravel.

Offering help
The clinic’s manager supplied a contact list of four patients who had complained about the doctor, including Vhadau. The legal officer attempted to contact the women to offer psycho social services and legal assistance. Vhadau has since pressed charges of rape.

Two of the other complainants, allegedly raped in 2009, refused help. The fourth had moved to Gauteng and could not be reached.

The doctor had also been charged with rape in 2006 but was acquitted in 2007 because of insufficient evidence.

Now he has been charged with two new counts of rape but, on Monday, he was granted bail of R30 000. In making his decision, the magistrate noted, among other things, pending forensic evidence.

While the doctor has apparently not been suspended from practising by the Health Professional Council of South Africa, the TVEP has written a letter to the council advocating his suspension.

The TVEP programme director Fiona Nicholson says: “Our ability to transform South Africa is not recognised. The way the victim empowerment programme is structured at the moment ensures no advocacy or accountability. The way they see it, we’re there to say ‘I’m sorry’.”

With erratic and often insufficient funding from the department of social development, victim empowerment programmes in the Limpopo province’s Vhembe district, a domestic violence and rape hot spot, are grinding to a halt, with many paring down their services or facing the prospect of closure.

Social development budget
A document outlining the distribution of 2008-2009 grant funding for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) by the province shows that Limpopo received 6.48% of the provincial social development budget, a total amount of R209-million for its population of more than five million people.

It is the third worst-funded province after the North West and Northern Cape, highlighting the poor funding for NGOs in rural areas.

According to the salary structures suggested by the provincial department of health and social development, civil society organisations are advised to pay monthly salaries of R2 500 for co-ordinators, R2 500 for administrators and R3 000 for programme directors.

“The prescribed minimum wage for a cleaner in the government is R4 200,” says Nicholson. “We obviously can’t attract expertise because our salaries are a pittance.”

Since its inception, the TVEP has received more than R31-million in grants from various sources, with more than 75% of that amount coming from foreign donors. Less than 3% of its total budget has come from the department of health and social development.

According to the department’s policy on financial awards to service providers, the department “plays a major role in organising supply of services” by either supplying the services itself or by contracting out the supply to service providers.

But civil society groups contend that the funding is paltry.

The department’s funding policy says civil society groups can qualify for annual funding of up to R167 500.

“That R167 500 is across the board and it doesn’t take into account that some programmes have four or five staff and some have 70,” says Norman Mudau, of the Mutale Victim Empowerment Programme in Thohoyandou, which, like the TVEP, is a member of the Vhembe Civil Society Network.

Effective implementation
The TVEP has a vigilant advocacy unit that strives to ensure effective implementation—at district level—of government policy pertaining to the rights and treatment of victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and those living with HIV.

It has 38 full-time staff and 28 volunteers who earn stipends starting from R1 500 a month. It has operated independently as a non-profit trust since 2002 and has the resources to pursue advocacy, but many of its smaller, less resourced counterparts fall under district committees comprised of the police and departmental officials, limiting the capacity for civilian oversight.

“So if a volunteer in a victim empowerment programme based in a police station sees police abusing a victim, she has to report it to the same committee she is employed by, meaning she can’t act against malpractice,” says Nicholson.

A common malpractice, she says, is that of reducing rape statistics by refusing to open rape dockets or “negotiating settlements” between perpetrators and victims.

In a 2009 submission to the portfolio committee and select committee on women, youth, children and people with disabilities about the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, Nicholson noted that the Vhembe District Victim Empowerment Programme Forum had been chaired by a department official since its inception, which severely hampered civilian oversight.

After opening its first trauma centre in 2001, the TVEP is facing the prospect of downscaling—irregular and insufficient funding by the provincial department of health and social development is forcing it to pare down the services offered by the Tshilidzini Trauma Centre and to shut down the Donald Frazer centre. The centres offer a holistic, integrated 24-hour service.

Between 2009 and 2010, 3 618 victims of sexual assault and domestic abuse passed through their doors. The Tshilidzini facility handled a staggering 1 375 cases last year alone.

Although the circumstances differ from one victim empowerment programme to the next, the centres visited by the M&G suggest that some are in a state of complete collapse, a tragedy considering that sex crimes in the province routinely approach the 5 000 mark each year.

The Vhumbedzi Victim Em­power­ment Programme, for instance, in the outlying rural village of Tshaulu north east of Thohoyandou, is in a derelict shell next to the otherwise pristine Tshaulu police station.

A former police barracks, the building is hardly fit for human habitation, with broken windows, damaged ceilings and blocked toilets.

It is not a comforting place, especially for someone seeking shelter from abuse.

In this community of about 1 200 households, up to 20 women use the drab bedrooms every month, seeking temporary respite from abusive spouses, its director, Bridget Munyai, says.

In the remote settlement of Siloam, north west of Thohoyandou, the Dzata Victim Empowerment Programme is dependent on the Siloam police station for virtually every aspect of its operations. A small partitioned office functions as its administrative and counselling wing.

With the policing precinct stretching over 42 villages, its three bedrooms are totally insufficient to deal with the demands of the community. A furnished prefabricated structure donated by the department of safety and security, comprising a toilet, shower, administration office and a bedroom, has provided some respite.

But having received only a quarter of its annual budget so far from the department, of which only 25% can be used for salaries, Gracious Munyai and Robin Tshiuda, two staff members interviewed by the M&G, are at their wits’ end.

“We have hardly any stationery and can hardly afford food for our clients,” says Munyai. “I’m being supported by my husband at the moment. If I can get another job, I will quit.”

The sour relations between the network and the district department of social development are an open secret, no doubt owing to Nicholson’s outspokenness.

At last year’s VEP conference near Polokwane, she was singled out as the ringleader of a protest (over the alleged cost of a conference) and removed as one of the speakers.

An outspoken woman is already a handful in the patriarchal environment that victim empowerment centres operate in. But an outspoken white woman operating outside of that framework is probably best ignored until she runs out of breath.

Attempts to contact the Vhembe district and national department of social development for comment were unsuccessful.

* Not her real name

Kwanele Sosibo is the Eugene Saldanha fellow in inequality and social justice reporting, supported CAF Southern Africa

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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