Full shelters, angry dads stuck at home — the hidden side of the GBV pandemic

Gill Gifford Senior journalist
Domestic violence made headlines in 2020 as lockdowns left women trapped at home with abusive partners.
Domestic violence made headlines in 2020 as lockdowns left women trapped at home with abusive partners.
Image: 123RF/Vigen Mnoyan

“I am so glad that gender-based violence was not actually SA’s second pandemic because if it was — if we actually saw the numbers that were anticipated — we would have seen a complete crumbling and collapse of the entire health system.”

This is the view of researcher Lisa Vetten, who on Wednesday released the findings of new research into the experiences of domestic violence sufferers and care providers during lockdown.

But while the research found that there was only a modest increase in reported cases, rather than the huge increases reported to be SA’s “shadow pandemic”, there were huge limitations in available information and an actual surge in cases was “seen on the ground”.

While details and nuances of available information are not known, Vetten has found that other factors have influenced the numbers and may be masking what actually took place in homes.

Vetten and Bernadine Bachar, director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, looked into what happened with regard to domestic violence after SA went into lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year.

At the time the government increased efforts to popularise its GBV helpline and declared shelters providing services to women and their children as an essential service. And the violence command council tracked all reports.

“Right in the beginning, police minister Bheki Cele caused a stir when he announced that the command council had taken 87,000 calls in the first week of lockdown and at the same time shelters were reporting an astounding increase in the number of calls they were receiving,” Vetten said.

But this was corrected a few days later when Cele clarified that the number he had quoted was actually the case total for 2019, and that the correct number of calls taken in the first week was actually 2,300 — not all of which were domestic-violence related.

Vetten said that at the time SA was rated 87.96 and 84.26 out of 100 on the Oxford Stringency Index, which rates the domestic violence danger in the home when schools, workplaces and businesses were closed, compounded by the ban on alcohol and cigarettes.

Bachar said while reported numbers went up at “a modest rate”, the details of what was actually happening remained unknown and still under further research.

Vetten said one such example had been seen in the information recorded at Grey’s Hospital, where not only patient cases were reported but they were also detailed in terms of gender information.

“What this gender-aggregated data shows us is that during lockdown, viewing specifically incidents of blunt force assaults and penetrating trauma or stabbings, there was a huge drop in the number of male victims during this time, while the figures relating to women did not change very much,” Vetten said.

There had also been barriers that blocked women from reporting, such as instances of police stations being closed for quarantining or decontamination and a general prioritising of lockdown violations over normal policing.

“And what we did see, in the Western Cape for example, was the huge role played by alcohol. We saw there that within 48 hours of the booze ban being lifted, shelters in the province started filling up rapidly,” Bachar said.

The end findings are that what happened during lockdown was complicated and nuanced, with different things happening in areas across the country, rather than the same reality being a standard experience.

Vetten said that while the GBV command council had kept record of the actual number of domestic violence cases reported to them, there was no subsequent information on what happened to each case — whether help had been given, if the woman had succeeded in gaining a protection order, or if the case went to court.

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