Shelter Staff Get Paid So Little for Their Dedication

Another 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children has come and gone - this year marking the 19th year of participating in this worldwide campaign to raise awareness of the negative impact of domestic and sexual violence on women and children. However, there is little evidence to indicate whether this campaign has positively contributed to curbing the horrific levels of violence.

Shelters provide essential services to survivors of abuse – including psycho-social, health and legal support services, as well as the provision of daily meals, toiletries and clothing, and more – giving women an opportunity to figure out what to do next.
Teaser Image Caption
Shelters provide essential services to survivors of abuse – including psycho-social, health and legal support services, as well as the provision of daily meals, toiletries and clothing, and more – giving women an opportunity to figure out what to do next

Every day, we are reminded that South Africa is one of the most violent places in the world for women and children, to live. The 16 Days of Activism is a good time to reflect on the value of interventions which are making a positive impact on the lives of those affected by gender-based violence (GBV). Shelters for abused women and their children is one such intervention.

Research being conducted by the National Shelter Movement of South Africa (NSM) and the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF), through their EU-funded “Enhancing State Responsiveness to GBV: Paying the True Costs” project, indicates that shelters play a significant role in women being able to leave abusive relationships.

Shelters provide essential services to survivors - ranging from a safe space to live to a host of other practical, psycho-social, health and legal support services such as the provision of daily meals, toiletries and clothing; assisting with helping women to access health care; assistance with applying for protection orders, following up on domestic violence cases, and assisting with divorce and maintenance issues.

They also assist with applying for social grants and renewals of identity documents; provision of skills development and job seeking support services; and provision of care and support for the children who access the shelters with their mothers.

The research - conducted in four provinces on policy, funding and practice - indicates that most women who access shelters are young (most under 36), have limited education, are unemployed, and have limited access to other forms of income such as child support grants.

This means that, in addition to health, legal and psychosocial needs; most women also require financial support from shelters to meet their daily needs.

The research finds, however, that shelters are under-resourced and thereby appear to be under-valued.

Accessing funding that adequately covers the costs of running a shelter and providing essential services to survivors is one of the main challenges facing these organisations. Shelters operate in precarious situations, with most experiencing funding shortages, with regular threats of imminent closure or the need to drastically reduce services.

State funding to shelters is provided through the auspices of the Department of Social Development (DSD). For the most part, DSD adopts an approach of funding shelters at a rate per “bed” or per “woman” per day.

For the 2015/16 financial year, this varied from just under R50 in the Western Cape and Gauteng to R63 in KwaZulu-Natal.

In some instances, DSD also contributes funding towards community awareness campaigns, care packs for residents, administrative expenses and subsidies for salaried positions of some staff.

In almost all provinces, funding included a contribution towards the salaries of social workers and house-mothers. House-mothers and care workers, who also play a vital role in caring for shelter residents, are subsidised at a rate which ranges from R2000 to R2500 a month.

Inadequate funding for staff posts not only places a significant financial burden on the shelter to pay their staff market-related salaries, but has a negative impact on staff morale and turnover.

At a round table event earlier this year, where preliminary findings of the research was first shared with government officials, one shelter resident noted that within the space of a few months, she had seen eight different social workers, due to the high staff turnover. Another noted that she didn’t realise that “shelter staff get paid so little, for all that they do to help us and our kids.”

The rationale behind DSD’s funding “models” is difficult to understand. Shelters cannot exist on a “bed” rate alone because there are other costs that are required to keep them in operation and ensure that they are effective.

There is also a need for contributing towards building maintenance, security for keeping residents safe and skills development programmes for residents.

An additional factor is that most shelters do not have the staff capacity or the financial resources to provide more in-depth psychotherapeutic support to the children of shelter residents.

Not adequately investing in services for children who are victims/witnesses of domestic violence could translate into a serious societal cost, since children who grow up in abusive homes are at risk of having life-long secondary trauma.

They may also view violence as a legitimate or normal way of resolving conflict thus perpetuating the cycle of violence and trauma.

The long-term financial and societal costs of violence against women, ultimately have a negative impact on everyone in society. It is critical that government fulfils its duty to ensure adequate recourse to survivors through the provision of adequate resources to shelters.

At the end of the day, prevention campaigns such as the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children, are meaningless when essential services such as shelters struggle to survive.

* Claudia Lopes is a project manager and Natasha Adonis is a communications officer at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Joy Watson is an independent feminist researcher.

This opinion piece was originally published by the Cape Argus on 19 December 2017 and can be accessed via…