Gender-based violence (GBV) is a severe and widespread problem in South Africa, affecting millions of women, girls, and children from all walks of life. GBV violates their human rights and dignity and harms their physical, mental, social, and economic well-being. One of the critical interventions to support women who want to escape from abusive situations is to provide them with safe and supportive shelters where they can receive counselling, legal assistance, skills development, and access to other relevant services. However, there is a shortage of shelters in South Africa for women, limiting their options and opportunities to rebuild their lives. The lack of shelters affects women’s empowerment and safety. What the government says vs does about the issue is a contradiction based on the current statistics.
- According to SaferSpaces (2022), more than half of all the women murdered (56%) in 2009 were killed by an intimate male partner. Between 25% and 40% of South African women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- According to Africa Health Organisation (2022), 51% of women in SA say they’ve experienced GBV, with 76% of men saying they’ve perpetrated GBV at one stage in their lives (2010 Gauteng sample). A similar study revealed that one in five women report that they have experienced violence at the hands of a partner.
- According to MOBIEG (2022), over 41% of rapes reported in South Africa involve children under 18. South Africa has an estimated 6,800,000 people living with HIV, making it one of the countries with the highest infection rates globally.
- According to News24 (2022), 125 shelters nationwide can accommodate 1,687 women. However, this is not enough to meet the demand and the need for shelter services for women, with or without their children, who experience GBV.
Insufficient, inconsistent and conditional Government funding
According to News24 (2022), NGOs receive less than 40% of allocated government funding, which is often inconsistent and conditional. The government imposes strict guidelines on NGOs to remain eligible for funding, such as limiting the duration of women’s stay at the shelter or complying with unreasonable and expensive health and safety regulations. These guidelines may not be suitable or realistic for the needs and circumstances of different women and may restrict the autonomy and flexibility of NGOs in providing effective services. The government’s funding for shelters is insufficient and does not match the demand and cost of providing shelter services for women. Neither is the government’s shelter funding adequate compared to the scale and severity of GBV in South Africa. The government’s lack of funding and support for shelters contradicts its rhetoric and commitments to combating GBV and empowering women, such as declaring GBV a national crisis, launching a national strategic plan, or signing international conventions. However, these declarations and procedures have not translated into concrete actions and outcomes for women who need shelter services. Human Rights Watch (2021) noted that the government has failed to fulfil its promises to combat GBV and support survivors, such as increasing shelter funding, ensuring accountability and transparency from relevant departments, strengthening collaboration between NGOs and other stakeholders, and raising awareness and advocacy on GBV issues. News24 (2022) reported that the government allocated R178 million for 125 shelters across the country in the 2022/23 financial year – essentially around R1.4 million per shelter. This amount is inadequate to cover shelters’ operational costs and staff salaries, let alone provide quality resources and services for women.
The government’s funding for shelters is insufficient, inconsistent, and conditional, hampering the sustainability and effectiveness of shelters. This means that many shelters cannot provide adequate care and support for women who need shelter services or are forced to close down due to financial difficulties. This also means that many women are unable to access shelter services at all or receive substandard services that do not empower them or protect them from GBV.
Here are some examples of shelters that struggle to accommodate more women than they are funded for or have to redirect funds from other expenses to meet the demand:
- The Eldorado Park Women’s Forum shelter in Johannesburg has 24 beds for survivors of GBV and human trafficking, but it receives funds from the government for only 12 beneficiaries. It has to get an updated health and safety certificate for the additional rooms from the city council and then take this to the social development department to raise its funding to 24 beneficiaries. In the meantime, it has to stretch its budget to cater to more women than it is funded for. (Women’s shelters struggle as they juggle low funding and an influx of victims | News24)
- The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children (SBCWC) in Cape Town is the largest shelter in South Africa and can accommodate up to 120 women and children. However, it faces a funding deficit of R1.6 million annually and has to rely on donations and fundraising to cover its operational costs and staff salaries. It also has to juggle low funding with an influx of victims, especially during the Covid-19 lockdown (Lack of government funding hampering women’s shelters | News24)
- The Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement, consisting of 20 shelters, faces a funding crisis as 14 of its shelters face closure over the next couple of months if they do not receive urgent funding. The government funding for these shelters is often delayed, insufficient, and conditional and does not cover all the expenses and services that the shelters provide. Some shelters must give up government funding due to the strict guidelines and reporting requirements they must comply with. (https://za.boell.org/en/2018/03/05/womens-shelters-hamstrung-funding-challenges)
Consequences due to the shortage of shelters
The shortage of shelters and overpopulation of some means that many women who need shelter services have nowhere safe to go for support. This can negatively affect their empowerment and future opportunities, such as finding work and accommodation, avoiding re-victimization, etc. For example:
- If there are no available beds at the shelters, women may have to stay in unsafe or unsuitable places, such as police stations, hospitals, or even with their abusers. This can expose them to further violence and trauma, preventing them from accessing the resources and services needed to heal and recover.
- If the shelters are overcrowded, women may have to share rooms or facilities with other women, which can compromise their privacy and comfort. They may also have to compete for limited resources and services, such as counselling, legal assistance, skills development, etc. This can affect their mental health and well-being, reducing their chances of gaining the knowledge and skills needed to become independent and self-reliant.
- If the shelters have short stay limits, women may have to leave before they are ready or prepared. They may not have enough time to process their trauma, develop a life strategy or safety plan, or secure work and accommodation. This can make them vulnerable to poverty and homelessness, increasing the risk of returning to their abusers or being re-victimized by others.
GBV is a serious and pervasive issue in South Africa that affects the lives and rights of millions of women and girls. The role of shelters in providing protection, support, and empowerment to women who want to escape from abusive situations is crucial. The shortage of shelters in South Africa for women is due to inadequate government funding and support. This article demonstrates the gap between the government’s rhetoric and actions on addressing GBV and the shortage of shelters in the country. We call for more investment, coordination, and accountability from the government and other stakeholders to ensure that women who experience GBV have access to adequate and quality shelter services. We further urge society to challenge the norms and attitudes perpetuating GBV and promote a culture of respect and equality for all. GBV is not a private or personal matter; it is a public health, human rights, and social justice issue that requires collective action and responsibility.