Counting the True Costs of Domestic Violence for Youth and Children in South Africa

Saartjie - on Domestic Violonce
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Saartjie - on Domestic Violonce

June is notable for having two commemorative days dedicated to younger persons: International Children’s Day on the 1st of June and South Africa’s Youth Day on June 16. Sadly, however, there remains very little for young people in South Africa to celebrate, particularly in the light of excessive levels of violence and sexual abuse directly targeting or negatively impacting young persons.

Recent research conducted by the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, on behalf of the Optimus Foundation, reveals how widespread the phenomena of domestic violence and sexual abuse are in South Africa.  The study found that 1 in 3 young people, aged between 15 and 17, experienced some form of sexual abuse in their life time; and two-thirds to half of these experienced repeated victimization. It also found that 31% of this same age cohort had been exposed to violence in the home.

Exposure to domestic violence holds serious ramifications for young persons, the implications of which can continue well into adulthood. This is a problem equally challenging for developing countries such as Canada. A University of Toronto research study published in the “Child: Care, Health and Development” journal, determined that the prevalence of suicide attempts in adults exposed to domestic violence as children stood at 17,3% in stark contrast to the rate of 2,3% among adults who were not exposed to domestic violence. The Optimus study referred to earlier also notes that the experience of sexual abuse holds negative implications for the mental health and well-being of young people, with most experiencing anxiety and depression as well as symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is therefore imperative, during this Children’s and Youth month, to take stock of how domestic violence broadly, and intimate partner violence in particular, affects young South Africans.

Levels of domestic violence in South Africa are so high, that the phenomenon is increasingly characterized as having reached epidemic proportions. Research by the Medical Research Council posits that on a daily basis at least three women die as a result of intimate partner violence.[2] All too frequently, women and children, who constitute the majority of domestic violence victims, are compelled to abandon their homes and seek safety in shelters. Speaking at the launch of a recently initiated project on shelters by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa office (HBF) and the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM), NSM Chairperson Sharon Kouta, asserted that 40% of women accessing shelters were female youths ranging from 18-24 years of age.  Women who seek sheltering, and the children brought with them to shelters, have significant needs. It is critical, in order to empower women to escape abuse, to provide them with professional psychosocial services, legal assistance, medical care and skills development amongst other practical day-to-day needs such as food and clothing. However, a study undertaken by the HBF and Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC) in 2013 determined that state funding to shelters for abused women was inadequate to meet all the needs of shelter residents[3].

A KPMG research report, entitled “Too costly to ignore – the economic impact of gender-based violence in South Africa’ estimates that between 0.9%-1.3% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (i.e. R 24-42 billion) is required to meet costs associated with gender-based violence. The study recommends an inter-sectoral funding model to more effectively address the comprehensive nature of GBV-related impacts through improved coordination-, budgeting- and implementation- of national response efforts.

Motivated by the belief that a comprehensive and holistic GBV prevention strategy is not only preferable but also more cost-effective than responding to GBV, the recently initiated HBF NSM  European Union-funded project, entitled ‘Enhancing State Responsiveness to Gender-Based Violence: Paying the True Costs’, aims to strengthen state capacity and accountability for adequate and effective provision of domestic violence survivor support programmes, specifically those that form part of sheltering services for abused women. The project will carry out research on the impact of shelters across six provinces of South Africa. Research findings are intended to have not only an empirical but also a practical and policy impact: this will be done through the lobbying of relevant stakeholders, who have the capacity to influence the budget process, in order to ensure sheltering services are adequately funded and able to more effectively address the needs of abused women and their children. Lastly, the project aims to facilitate the standardization of shelter policies and to strengthen existing referral systems of abused women to shelters.

While the Department of Social Development has overall responsibility for the provision of sheltering services for abused women, the HBS and NSM project will strive to promote a multi-sectoral approach, in order to synergize the roles and contributions of different government role-players, ultimately ensuring a more comprehensive, holistic, sustainable and effective strategy to addressing domestic violence and support the provision of sheltering services. While South Africa is often lauded for having a strong legal framework to address violence against women and children, there remains a great deal to be done to ensure that legislated and policy  commitments are backed up by the requisite budgets to address the true costs of gender-based violence on women and children.  


About the Authors

All three writers work in their respective capacities to support the EU-funded, HBF and the NSM project, “Enhancing State Responsiveness to GBV: Paying the True Costs”.           

Chiedza Chaguta is a project co-ordinator based at the National Shelter Movement and a researcher who has previously focused on gender and violent masculinities in Africa. She can be reached on

Nokukhanya (Khanya) Mncwabe is a project assistant at the Heinrich Böll Foundation and a researcher and human rights advocate with previous experience supporting transitional justice policy development in Africa and drawing attention to business and human rights issues.

Claudia Lopes is a project manager of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, specializing in women’s rights activism, with a particular focus on violence against women. She can be reached on

To keep abreast of project developments please follow the organisations on twitter via @boellza and @NSM_SA, #TrueCostOfGbv.

[1] International Children’s Day was originally established as the International Day for the Protection of Children by the Women’s International Democratic Federation in November 1949

[2] ‘Every eight hours: intimate femicide in South Africa 10 years later’ (MRC Research Brief: 2012)

[3] A summary of the findings of the HBF and TLAC studies is provided in the following Policy Brief: PDF