Women’s Shelters: It’s Not Just a Bed, It’s Saving a Life.

Press release

In their 16 Days of Activism press statement, the Western Cape Women's Shelter Movement highlights the expanded roles of women's abuse shelters in responding to and disrupting violence against women. 

Woman at a shelter in Cape Town.

Between 2019 and 2021, the National Shelter Movement of South Africa, of which the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement (WCWSM) is a valued partner, published a series of three books documenting the stories of survivors who had entered and stayed in women’s abuse shelters. The majority of survivors interviewed had fled their homes because of violence from an intimate partner. Author and curator Shamim Meer wrote in Book #3 that “Most of the women who fled intimate partner violence, experienced untenable violence, akin to torture. They were abused emotionally, psychologically and physically. Some had near death experiences – 3 women shared how their partners had attempted to kill them. Women spoke of being depressed and some spoke of suicidal thoughts. Two women attempted suicide.”

Women’s abuse shelters are the response mechanism to interrupt violence by helping women leave abusive homes and, in the words of Delene Roberts, WCWSM Chairperson, “literally we are there when the next step is death.”

The statement is not an exaggeration. Just last week on the 17 November, Police Minister Bheki Cele released the quarterly crime statistics, revealing that between July and September 2023, 881 women 

were murdered, 1514 cases of attempted murder of women were reported to police and 14 401 women were victims in Assault GBH incidents. This is just three-months of documented violence out of the whole year. 

“Calling our services shelters is somewhat misleading”, says Roberts, “as the word is one-dimensional. In the Minimum Standards on Shelters, women’s abuse shelters are more clearly defined as safe houses and crisis centres.” 

Aside from shelter, explains Roberts, there are a number of services provided to victims of violence. “When women approach shelters directly or are referred, many have injuries and we have to take them to the hospital. Some women require protection orders so we take them to court. And others who choose to report the abuse are accompanied to the police station. In between all of this, we are feeding, clothing and counselling the survivors and their children to help them adjust to a life away from abuse.” 

During the pandemic when women could not leave their homes, says Roberts, shelters partnered with Uber and performed a number of covert extractions. “One might not think of social workers as emergency response practitioners, but during the Covid lockdown, shelters organised a few covert operations to extract survivors from their homes. This involved sophisticated planning, collaboration and communication so that abusive partners would not be alerted.” These ‘Covid’ responses continue each day, as the causal factors remain even though they were heightened during the pandemic.

The Department of Social Development has different criteria for women’s abuse shelters, based on the definitions within the Minimum Standards on Shelters for Abused Women. According to these standards, there should be three types of sheltering services to help women navigate the various stages of recovery after leaving an abusive situation. 

  • Safe houses are intended to accommodate women for a maximum of a week, with the nature of abuse forming the basis of this model of emergency accommodation. 
  • In crisis centres, the length of stay is undefined, but they are required to be open and available on a 24/7 basis. Services offered by crisis centres should include counselling, programmes for children (including their enrolment in new schools), access to health care services and linkages to childcare services (unless the shelter could offer these). 
  • Second stage housing appears to have been envisaged as a form of transitional housing, rather than shelter. 

Despite the extended mandate listed within these definitions, shelters are funded on a per-bed model, with many of these extra services not taken into account.  In a 2018 report by the Heinrich Böll Foundation titled ‘What is Rightfully Due: Costing the Operations of Domestic Violence Shelters’, it found that a per-bed funding model is not appropriate as shelters’ variable costs are determined by individual women’s circumstances, which includes their employment status, level of education, number of children, health and access to resources. Most women who access shelters are unemployed and arrive with nothing but the clothes they are wearing. In 2018, the beneficiary cost per woman and her two children was calculated as R7 223.72 per month. 

Many shelters adopt all three criteria anyway, providing emergency safe care, connecting and transporting shelter residents to health and legal services as well as providing psychosocial and mental health services. In longer-term sheltering, women participate in occupational and vocational skills development to empower them economically and financially, so they that they are not forced to return to abusive situations after their stay. Children are also assisted with school enrolment, educational supplies and psychosocial support. 

Shelters provide immediate protection from abuse and research has shown that more than half of women who enter shelters do not return to their abusive partners after they leave. As we head into 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children, the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement would like to highlight that despite gaps in funding and support, women’s abuse shelters – themselves largely staffed by women – continue to provide trauma-informed and victim-centered services to women brave enough to leave abusive situations and reach out for help. 

The international theme for 16 Days of Activism 2023 is ‘Invest to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls’. We have seen the impact when private companies such as Uber partner with shelters to assist women leaving abusive situations. While we are waiting for comprehensive funding to services beyond providing beds, we call on private donors to support the work, for businesses to partner with us and for everyone who can to donate food, stationary, dignity packs and clothing to our shelters. To get in touch with us, you can email admin@wcwsm.org.za 

Explore the topic: GBV: Care & Support in a Time of Epidemic