Lockdown escape: Strained services struggle to rescue abused women

Lee-Ann Jephtas* is pretending to be asleep, waiting.

It’s day 25 of South Africa’s national lockdown, put in place by the country’s government to curb the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 160000 people worldwide.

She’s lying frozen next to her husband of 12 years in their Paarl home, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town.

Still dozing, her husband’s features are uncharacteristically tranquil. He’s a violent man.

A week ago, he threatened to end her life.

“I’ll drive us into oncoming traffic,” he had said, nostrils flaring, “then I’ll swerve the bakkie so that you get hit by a truck.”

Jephtas has endured his abuse for nearly a decade. The beatings could come at the smallest infringements of his rules. For instance, when she doesn’t have dinner ready at exactly 6pm.

This time, she’d forgotten to buy toilet paper.

He snarled: “I’ll kill you.”

It’s just past 6am now, around the time Jephtas would usually start her day.

The 33-year-old mother gets up, gets dressed and walks out of the room.

She’s leaving today, with the three children. They’re going to a shelter for survivors of gender-based violence nearby.

But they’ll have to be quick — and quiet.

At the gender-based violence command centre in Tshwane, the phones never stop ringing.

Pheladi Mamaila is a social worker there. “As soon as you put the phone down another call comes through,” she says.

During her 12-hour shift, she supervises a team of 10 social workers. She works the day shift for two days, followed by two night shifts and then four off days while the other two teams take over.

In total, there are only 40 social workers, who field between 500 and 1000 calls each day from women all over the country now stuck at home with their abusers.

And it’s not unexpected.

South African women are five times more likely to be killed on account of their gender than other women worldwide, the country’s national statistical service, Statistics South Africa, estimates.

The command centre’s data shows that, in the first four days of South Africa’s three-week lockdown, the number of daily calls doubled.

Data-free messages to the centre’s phone number increased more than tenfold and SMSes streamed in at double the usual daily rate too.

By April 22, the centre had received 12702 calls since the start of lockdown, according to the department of social development’s records.

People call about everything from domestic violence, attempted suicides and, very often, because they need food. Each call takes at least half an hour as Mamaila and her team work to counsel people who have endured often traumatising abuse in their homes.

In some cases, the social workers call the police to intervene. “Other times the abuse is so bad that we send people to a shelter where they can be safe,” she says.

Mamaila and the other supervisors have requested that the department of social development hire 16 more social workers to help field the deluge of calls that are steadily increasing as the lockdown stretches on.

The department did not respond to Bhekisisa’s request for comment.

Just before the end of Mamaila’s shift, there are still 524 calls waiting to be answered. Even abandoned calls are followed up to make sure the person on the other end is okay.

She sighs. “We need man power.”

It’s 06.15am on a Sunday morning when Lee-Ann Jephtas walks out of her bedroom for the last time.

Within an hour, the sun will rise over Paarl mountain’s grey granite, which overlooks the Berg River valley where Jephtas lives. For now, most of the city’s inhabitants are still asleep.

Every part of their escape is planned in detail.

“I was so worried I would oversleep and miss my chance [to leave], I barely slept at all,” she says.

The four of them must be out of the house before her husband wakes up.

She wakes the little ones, their faces immediately anxious. Yesterday, while their dad was not around, Jephtas had explained that they would no longer be living with their father.

“I can’t go on like this anymore,” she said. She asked her 11-year old daughter to help pack bags for her and her two younger siblings, and hide the bundles somewhere out of sight, but easy enough for them to grab.

Jepthas explained: “Don’t pack too much, neh, we don’t want Dad to notice that there are clothes missing.”

She glances at her watch. Five minutes have passed. They need to get moving.

Jephtas rushes to the kitchen and fills the kettle with water.

That way, she thinks, her husband will think it’s just another Sunday morning. Besides, he doesn’t get up until she’s brought him coffee in bed — or else.

Jephtas flips the plastic switch on the kettle. The familiar morning ritual is a crucial part of her escape plan.

It will only boil for about three minutes. In that time, she has to get to the front door, unlock it and get everybody out.

She waits a bit, until the electronic hum gets louder.

By now her heart is pounding but she keeps her face calm.

Then Jephtas picks up the keys to the front door. “Come,” she whispers to her children, “let’s go.”

These days, getting a survivor of abuse to a shelter is not quite as simple as dropping them off, says Moya Hay, head of the international charity organisation Salvation Army in Tshwane.

She explains: “Everyone who comes to our shelter must be cleared of the coronavirus first.”

In addition, all staff and guests at the shelter are given protective gear and the facility is sanitised at least daily, Hay says.

The number of people living in a room has also been cut.

Since lockdown started, the number of requests Hay gets for accommodation at her home for abused women and children has been astounding. The organisation, however, does not release details about how many women and children they house.

The charity also runs a round-the-clock counselling hotline.

“Two nights ago, a lady called and she just cried,” Hay says.

So far, South Africa hasn’t seen the massive increase in domestic violence many were expecting, says director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in the Western Cape. But, the number of cases started to tick up when lockdown was extended just before Easter, she says.

As a result, the department of social development has already started approaching empty hotels and guest houses to help house women and children in need, says Mmabatho Ramagoshi, the secretary general of the International Alliance of Women. She was speaking at a webinar on gender-based violence during lockdown hosted by the department of women, youth and persons with disabilities.

She cautions: “We just won’t have the shelters to deal with this pandemic.”

Abuse of women and children is likely to get worse as the pandemic stretches on, Amber Peterman warns. She is the lead researcher of a rapid review published by the United States nonprofit think tank Center for Global Development.

The review is the first in a series of projects by an independent research team called the “Gender and COVID-19 Working Group”. The 45-page document draws together evidence on the impact of pandemics on violence against women and children from previous crises such as HIV and Ebola, and outlines nine different factors that might increase abuse.

The results are clear, Peterman says: quarantines and social isolation have been shown to increase women and children’s risk of being abused.


For the simple reason that they are more exposed to potential perpetrators. Controlling behaviours may also be coping mechanisms for perpetrators who feel a loss of control due to quarantine, the researchers write. “Isolation is an established abuse tactic for intimate partner violence even outside of pandemic contexts.”

When men migrate away from home, the rate of intimate partner violence decreases.

In a working paper published in March, researchers gave Bangladeshi men in poor households loans which they could use to fund travel to find seasonal employment elsewhere. The result? Physical and sexual intimate partner violence dropped by 4% in just six months.

Although 4% doesn’t seem like much, the researchers note that the strong link between men not getting a grant and women experiencing violence is worth noting.

Women in villages in which men did not receive the migration loans were 31% more likely to experience sexual and physical violence.

As South Africa’s ailing economy continues to tumble, fears about money might also contribute to abuse against women and children.

Peterman explains: “We already know many poor populations have increased levels of violence because of food insecurity and stressors related to everyday life.”

Financial stress and poverty have been linked to dangerous coping strategies such as substance abuse, taking on debt and transactional sex, which in turn make violence against women and children more likely, research published in the Annual Review of Economics in 2018 shows.

But, the social security systems that are already in place in South Africa might help, Peterman argues.

The researchers suggest that social safety nets such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, food voucher payments and tax relief will act as shock absorbers for the economic downturn the pandemic brings.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this week that child grants will be increased by R300 for May. Between June and October, these grants will be boosted by R500.

Other grants such as unemployment will be raised by R250 each month until October.

When it comes to violence against women, Peterman and her colleagues suggest these types of grants could be expanded to include cash transfers for households hard-hit by abuse and violence.

In a World Bank review of 22 studies that investigated the impact of cash transfer programmes for women on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, most studies found that these cash programmes lowered the rate of intimate partner violence and were specifically successful in reducing sexual violence.

She explains: “An important lesson from the research is to have some form of support for people who are heavily hit by abuse both financially and with counselling.”

On the phone from the command centre, Mamaila is exhausted. She’s used to the long hours, but these days, even sleep doesn’t give her a reprieve from the violence she hears about each day.

“When I go to bed at night, I dream about those women,” she says.

Back in Paarl, the streets are quiet — people have been confined to their homes for nearly a month now. Citizens caught breaking the lockdown laws can be fined or imprisoned, with exceptions for trips to the pharmacy, grocery store or work for essential services such as medical staff.

But this morning, four huddled figures are seen walking down the street.

Lee-Ann Jepthas and her three children are heading to a nearby school. It’s just a five-minute

walk away from the house they just fled.

There, a social worker will pick them up and take them to the nearest shelter for survivors of gender-based violence.

Her eldest daughter is nervous. “Mammie, shouldn’t we walk a bit faster? What will happen if Dad wakes up and comes looking for us?”

They’re nearly there. She can already see the school gates. There should be a car there waiting for them. But she can’t see anyone.

Her son has noticed too.

The little boy asks: “Phone that lady, mommy, please.”

The social worker must be running late, she thinks.

Once they’re outside the school, Jephtas looks around her nervously.

She recalls: “I was terrified that the police would see us and take us back home or worse, that my husband would wake up and come looking for us.”

The coronavirus pandemic is not only pushing up the need for safe havens around the country, it’s also increasing the cost of taking care of people once they’re there, says Bernadine Bachar, the director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in the Western Cape.

Litres of hand sanitiser, protective gear for staff and extra medical costs are all new entries on Bachar’s list of expenses.

She’s also spending extra money on petrol to fetch her staff from their homes each day. She explains: “There was a lot of anxiety about coming to work each day and possibly encountering the police.”

If anyone at Bachar’s shelter gets sick during the lockdown period, they’ll be sent to a private doctor. The shelter now covers those costs too.

“We want to minimise people’s risk of getting infected with the new coronavirus while they’re waiting in lines at facilities for hours. They could possibly expose everybody else at the centre too,” she says.

The lockdown is also forcing people who come to shelters for help to stay for longer than usual.

When women and children arrive at a place of safety, their social worker will help to set an exit date and start assisting them in forming a support system that will help them transition into their new life outside the shelter, Bachar explains.

But now, those exit dates keep being pushed back as the lockdown is extended.

She warns: “It’s created a lot of frustration, anger and a need for extra psychological services.’

Where does the money for all of this come from?

Most shelters raise about half of their revenues from fundraising events such as high teas and golf days, Bachar says, but now those options are off the table.

About 45% of shelters’ money comes from the department of social development.

But many shelters across the country have not yet received their grants, the head of the National Shelter Movement Zubaida Dangor told participants of the ministry of women’s webinar.

What’s more, some shelters don’t have enough protective gear for their staff.

In 2019, an investigation into the country’s shelters by the Commission for Gender Equality found that in addition to being chronically underfunded, shelters that did receive funding from the department of social development were often paid late, causing significant cash flow issues.

Says Bachar: “Additional funding from the government is absolutely crucial.”

One source of such funding could come from the Criminal Asset Recovery Account, a fund which pools money confiscated by the government.

Some money from this fund has already been earmarked to go to shelters for survivors of abuse, and Bachar and her colleagues across the country raced to apply for the funding by the end of February this year.

But now, because of the lockdown, shelters have been told these funds cannot be distributed since the required inspections of shelter facilities can no longer be done.

Frustrated, Bachar says: “There must be some other way to do these inspections.”

Ten excruciating minutes tick by before a white bakkie pulls up in front of the Paarl primary school where Lee-Ann Jephtas and her three children are waiting.

The social worker inside the vehicle is from a nearby shelter for survivors of abuse.

The Jephtas pile in.

Lee-Ann has barely closed the door when she feels her phone vibrate.

She looks at the name on the screen, then at the social worker and says: “You were just in time.

“It’s him.”

*Not her real name.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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Joan van Dyk
Joan Van Dyk
Joan van Dyk graduated with an honours degree in journalism from Stellenbosch University in 2017. She was the top performing student in the class of 2016.

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