Using codewords to protect against domestic violence

“Are you selling koesiesters?” is a WhatsApp text message Caroline Peters has come to expect. 

What may seem like an innocuous message enquiring about a traditional Cape Flats Sunday morning treat is actually a cry for help.

Koesiesters are different from koeksisters. The Cape Flats delicacy is of a doughy, doughnut-like texture, and flavoured with spices, dipped in sugar syrup and rolled in desiccated coconut.

Peters does not sell koesiesters. She is the co-ordinator of the Cape Flats Women’s Movement, set up to uphold rights and advocate against gender-based violence. During the lockdown she has been inundated by calls for help by victims of domestic abuse using the code message about koesiesters.

Because of the lockdown, many of these women are unable to leave their homes. They’re spending extended periods of time indoors with their abusers and are at great risk of violence.

“I started seeing a campaign in the UK where victims were using code words in text messages, so I adapted it to the local context. We all know about koesiesters here in Cape Town, so when I get that message I know you are in trouble,” says Peters.

The back-and-forth conversation between the prospective buyer and baker is meant to get as much information as possible, so that authorities can be called in case an intervention is needed.

Peters says she tells the women on the other side of the WhatsApp line that because it is a lockdown, they are not supposed to move around. But the koesiester seller has a permit to deliver — this is how Peters obtains the address of the possible victim.

With the name and address of the person at risk, Peters then regularly messages the women to check in on their safety.

“I regularly message the women and ask them, ‘Hello. Are you still interested in buying koesiesters?’ if the answer is no then we know there is calm in the house.”

If ever Peters receives a message from a woman in her database asking about the price of koesiesters, then she knows violence is imminent.

“This is then when we know it’s time to get the police involved. We know your name, we have your address and we can activate the authorities knowing you are in possible danger.”

Peters thought of the codeword plan ahead of the national lockdown to help to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In the days leading up to the lockdown, she posted videos on her Facebook page that have since been shared widely.

Its success has possibly become almost too good. The koesiester code has become so well-known that Peters fears that abusers may have become aware of it. So she’s continuously innovating to develop new codewords so that women can reach out to her.

She also runs a lockdown feeding scheme mainly serving women, who line up to get a meal for their family. Here, new words are conveyed, check-ins are conducted and it’s also a way to get women to safety. Since the lockdown began, Peters has been responsible for making sure four women have been moved to a place of safety.

“It’s the women who come and collect food for their families, or would have fed their children at night, so would come to get something for themselves in the morning. This would be our opportunity to take them to shelters,” she says.

Using coded phone messages to reach out for help is not new. In November 2019, an American woman in Ohio called the 911 emergency number to order a pizza; it was her call for help after an attack inside her home.

Since the onset of the lockdown, support groups and NGOs have noted an increase in gender-based violence. Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that in the first five days of the lockdown, between March 27 and March 31, about 2300 complaints had been received by the national gender-violence hotline. Of those, 148 suspects were charged. 

“The violence moved inside the home. But it’s so difficult with people having to decide whether to buy data for their cellphone or a loaf of bread. And of course, a mother is going to choose a loaf of bread,” says Peters.

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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