Calls flood abuse relief centre

Joan van Dyk

There have been thousands of calls to the country’s gender-based violence command centre in Tshwane and places of safety around the country, social workers say.  

  The call centre receives between 500 and 1 000 calls a day from women and children confined to homes as part of the Covid-19 lockdown. 

  Statistics South Africa estimates that South African women are five times more likely to be killed on account of their gender than other women worldwide. 

  Now, many South Africans are stuck at home with their abusers. The centre’s data shows that, in the first four days of the lockdown, the number of daily calls doubled. Data-free messages to the centre’s phone number increased more than ten-fold and SMSs streamed in at double the usual daily rate too.

  By 11 April, the centre had received 8 764 calls since the start of the lockdown, according to the Department of Social Development’s records.  People call about domestic violence, attempted suicides, and very often, because they need food.

  A social worker at the gender-based violence command centre in Groenkloof, Tshwane, Pheladi Mamaila says each call takes at least half an hour as her team counsel people who have endured often traumatising abuse in their homes. In some cases, the workers call the police to intervene. 

  “Sometimes the abuse is so bad that we send people to a shelter where they can be safe,” Mamaila says.

  But these days it’s not quite as simple as dropping someone at a shelter, explains Moya Hay, head of the Salvation Army in Tshwane. “Everyone who comes to our shelter must be cleared of the coronavirus first,” she says.

  People waiting for test results are quarantined in hospital until they are taken to the shelter; and the number of people living in a room has also been cut,Hay says. 

  Since lockdown started, the number of requests Hay gets for accomodation at her home for abused women and children have been astounding. 

  The charity also runs a round the clock counselling hotline.  “Two nights ago, a lady called and she just cried,” Hay says.

  Back at the command centre, even abandoned calls are returned to make sure the person on the other end is safe. 

  But something’s got to give, Mamaila says: “The phone never stops ringing. As soon as you put the phone down another call comes through.”

  Mamaila and the other supervisors have requested the Department of Social Development to hire 16 more social workers to help field the deluge of calls.

  The department of social development did not respond to a request for comment. 

  This kind of violence is likely to get worse as the pandemic stretches on, warns Amber Peterman, lead researcher of a rapid review published by the United States NPO think tank the Center for Global Development in April. 

  The review is the first in a series by an independent research team called the Gender and Covid-19 Working Group. This 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. 

  Peterman says: “Quarantines and social isolation have been shown to increase women’s and children’s risk of being abused; for the simple reason that they are more exposed to potential perpetrators.”

  Controlling behaviors 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.”  

  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. 

  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 last week that the Unemployment Insurance Fund has set aside R40-billion to help people who will not be able to work during lockdown.

  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.

  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 complementary referral services including psychological support.” 

  The Gender-Based Violence National Command Centre can be reached on 0800 428 428. Article first published by Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism

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