Fight Against Abuse Not Over

Children playing outside a shelter for abused women and children
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Children playing outside a shelter for abused women and children

This month South Africans honour and celebrate the country’s young people. June 16, in particular, is a day for deep introspection when the country honours and celebrates young people who had the courage and determination to rise up against the apartheid state 41 years ago. It is in part thanks to them that the political landscape today looks very different to what it once was. However, while there should be cause to celebrate there have been moments in our more recent history, such as the Fees Must Fall protests, when our democratic government responded to youth protests in ways reminiscent of those used in 1976. There is even less to celebrate in light of the excessive levels of violence and sexual abuse being perpetrated against children and the youth in our country every day. As a result, June must also be a month in which we in South Africa, ask some serious questions about what role government plays in ensuring a strong democratic South Africa for future generations.

Just six months into the year, 22 children in the Western Cape alone have died as a result of these excessive levels of violence. One of the more recent cases which grabbed media attention is that of 5-year old Minentle Lekatha. Minentle disappeared while playing outside her house on a Saturday afternoon earlier this month. Her body was found the following day, ironically on the last day of Child Protection Week. She reportedly had been raped and strangled, her body discarded under a bridge.

Police crime statistics reveal violent crimes committed against children under the age of 18 are at epidemic proportions and most are on the increase. A total of 20254 sexual offences cases; 10420 cases of common assault; 8225 cases of assault with intention to commit grievous bodily harm; 906 cases of attempted murder; and 884 cases of murder were reported to or detected by the police in the 2015/16 financial year. Of these five crime categories, three reflect increases in comparison to the previous year: common assault rose by 2.76%; attempted murder by 4.38%; and murder, by a staggering 9.95%.

While these numbers are shocking, they are but a drop in the ocean once underreporting is taken into account - somewhere around 1 in 9 to 1 in 13 cases of sexual offences are reported to the police. Recent research into the sexual victimisation of children, conducted by the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit and the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention on behalf of the Optimus Foundation, substantiates how widespread this problem is. From interviews researchers conducted with youths aged 15-17 at high schools across the country, it emerged that 35% (1 in 3) had experienced some form of sexual abuse; 42% reported having been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused or neglected at some point; and 82% had experienced some form of victimisation, whether through crime, community violence or violence within the home.

Provincial research into shelters for abused women and their children, undertaken by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa office and the National Shelter Movement of South Africa and funded by the EU, confirms violence in the home is a significant problem for youth. This is both within the context of being exposed to the violence and/or it being perpetrated against them.

In Mpumalanga 52% and in KwaZulu-Natal 75% of women accessing shelters as a result of intimate partner violence were younger than 35 years old (the age up to which South Africa’s National Youth Policy considers someone a youth).

The impact of intimate partner violence on the lives of these women, as well as the many children who accompanied their mothers to the shelter, was significant. Most required medical assistance to treat injuries sustained from having been shot or stabbed; having arms or jaws broken; or being burnt. They also required psychological and psychiatric intervention to address symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, as well as suicidal impulses. Shelter clients also needed legal support in the form of applying for protection orders, following up on domestic violence cases, divorce applications, applications or renewals of identity documents and child birth certificates. Children had further needs associated with schooling, such as school transfers, transport, the acquisition of uniforms, textbooks, stationery and meals.

The research found most of these young women were unemployed and had little to no income. Consequently, shelters, most of which are run by non-profit organisations, had to meet most of the costs associated with the provision of sheltering. These included day-to-day needs such as food, clothing, and toiletries, as well as medical, psychosocial and legal services. Although the provision of shelter for abused women and children is a state-legislated mandate and therefore the government’s responsibility, the research indicates state funding for shelters is inadequate.

Government funding for shelters is by and large provided by the Department of Social Development. Such funds tend to be allocated to some staff salaries (a marginal contribution), facility maintenance and/or security, outreach campaigns, and client costs, which are calculated in terms of a unit rate per person. The unitary rate varies from province to province. In the Western Cape, for example, the Social Development Department’s contribution to a particular shelter over the 2015/16 financial year was R49 a person a day. This contribution was intended to cover not only residents’ food, but costs related to other needs, such as transport and toiletries. The operational costs of running this shelter, however, exceed the departmental funding by 55%.

If shelters do not have the required funds, then they are not able effectively to provide those much-needed services. This has implications for women and children’s safety and security as well as their future prospects. It also has implications for the sustainability of shelter services - an absolute necessity in a country with some of the highest levels of violence against women and children in the world.

It is imperative, during this Youth Month, that the government truly takes stock of how violence affects young South Africans and fully considers the short- and long-term costs to society as a whole (and the economy) if it continues to not adequately and effectively respond to this crisis. 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. While we continue to remember and honour the youths who fought for their rights to freedom and justice in 1976, let us not forget, that today our fight for these same rights is far from over.

This opinion piece was published by the Weekend Argus on the 17th of June 2017 and can be accessed online via