Sex workers, LGBTQ+ and undocumented people struggle to find shelters, says report

The South African government must provide adequate funding to shelters, and improve access to these facilities, for marginalised people such as sex workers, undocumented migrants and those in the LGBTQ+ community, civil society organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said.

In a report released this week titled South Africa: Broken Promises to Aid Gender-Based Violence Survivors, it said while the country’s Covid-19 lockdown regulations had increased the risk of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV) for women and girls, the aftermath might be even greater for people on the margins.

“The South African government has taken important steps but did not provide adequate funding for shelters and other services for gender-based violence survivors during the Covid-19 pandemic,” HRW said.

The international human rights advocacy group facilitated interviews with shelters and organisations working to prevent GBV across the country, as well as experts. 

While shelters in the Western Cape seemed to have received more support from government than those in other provinces, all the shelters indicated to HRW how difficult it was to get government services, “including some lifesaving services”.

“Some government officials were working from home and it was hard to reach them,” a social worker from a shelter in the Eastern Cape said. 

HRW found that the government’s Covid-19 aid programmes, including food parcels during lockdown, “overlooked people with disabilities, refugees and asylum seekers, and many LGBT people”.

Shelters also differed in terms of whom they accepted, excluding undocumented migrants, LGBT people and women with older male children, for reasons “that range from lack of private family facilities to concern about running afoul of the immigration law”.

Additionally, older women, people dealing with substance abuse and women with severe illnesses or with disabilities would also find it difficult to find a shelter due to a lack of resources to provide specialised health or services.

According to Wendy Isaack, LGBT researcher at HRW, the majority of shelters primarily support women, and when a transgender man who has not gone through the entire transition requests access it creates a difficult situation because, “Would the person be able to access a women’s shelter or not?”

Isaack highlighted that from February 221 LGBT individuals had been murdered.

S’khethucwaka Maqubela, from the Pride Shelter in Cape Town, the only one designed for LGBT survivors in South Africa, says access to shelters and limited space in shelters are some of the problems. 

“People might feel uncomfortable with a transgender individual in the shelter, or don’t understand the situation,” Maqubela said, adding that LGBTQ+ survivors “move from one violent space into another violent space”. 

The HRW reported cited experts as saying more funding, training and skills building was needed to counter discrimination and bias in shelters, provide tailored services and raise awareness about the availability of shelter services among marginalised populations. 

The government’s role

HRW says there is political will in the government to address challenges and to amend policies, but “budgetary constraints and lack of cooperation among government departments have undermined progress”.

“Victims lack support when attempting to report violence and lack adequate access to courts and to shelters,” it said, noting that this had worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Acknowledging the strains the pandemic has placed on government institutions and services, HRW says South Africa does provide support to shelters but that more funding and focus is needed. 

“The government was too slow to publicly note that the pandemic and the stringent lockdowns had increased the risks of gender-based violence. They said that national and local officials have never acknowledged the added dangers to some groups like sex workers, refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants as well as LGBT people,” the report said.

Bernadine Bachar, an executive committee member of the National Shelter Movement, called for better coordination between various departments instead of putting the sole responsibility on the department of social development. 

“We need the South African Police Service, department of justice, the department of health, housing, social development … all of these role players to actually coordinate and actually stand together with shelters and make sure that the services are supported by a constitutional housing,” said Bachar. 

Isaack concurred, adding: “A large-scale and fully resourced effort will be needed to ensure the Covid-19 crisis and its fallout over the next years doesn’t result in South Africa’s rates for gender-based violence worsening further.”

HRW said attempts to interview or obtain feedback from the department of social development, which oversees shelter services, had been unsuccessful.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a junior daily news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a freelance journalist and a broadcaster at Maroela Media and Smile90.4FM.

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