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Women's shelter report reveals 'unacceptable levels of violence — akin to torture or wars'

Suthentira Govender Senior reporter
The experiences of 101 women - former shelter residents - have been laid bare in a report commissioned by the National Shelter Movement of SA
The experiences of 101 women - former shelter residents - have been laid bare in a report commissioned by the National Shelter Movement of SA
Image: 123RF/olegdudko / File photo

A severed ear, damaged kidney, broken shoulder, the inability to walk unaided, public humiliation and sexual violence.

These are some of the abuses SA women — who sought refuge in shelters — have endured at the hands of their intimate partners.

The experiences of 101 women — former shelter residents from 31 establishments — have been laid bare in a report commissioned by the National Shelter Movement of SA (NSMSA).

It comes as SA observes 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.

Most of the women who took part in the study were between the ages of 20 and 40 when they entered the shelter and were in a precarious financial position.

Almost half of them had dropped out of high school.

Many received state child support grants which helped them to survive.

Less than a third of women (27%) were in employment, and most of these (95%) in precarious and low paid jobs.

70% had taken shelter from intimate partner violence.

The violence included verbal, emotional, and physical abuse and for some death threats.

The women told of excruciating experiences, of living in fear, their relationships zones of daily conflict.

Lasting physical injuries inflicted on some women included an ear cut off, kidney damage, a broken shoulder, a disabled hand, an injured back and an inability to walk unaided.

Impacts on the women included years of depression, low self-esteem, self blame, suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide.

According to the report at times the physical violence took place in public.

A 32-year-old KwaZulu-Natal woman, who completed her degree while still in the relationship, shared that her boyfriend would assault her outside school or a store.

A 31-year-old woman, also from KwaZulu-Natal told how her husband dragged her out of a taxi and assaulted her on the street.

Another KwaZulu-Natal woman, 44, related how her husband would drag her on the ground in the yard in full view of neighbours and “show off to them how badly he treats me”.

In most cases abusive partners controlled the women’s movements and isolated them from friends and family.

Control often also took the form of telling the women what to wear and what to think.

In some cases the men followed their movements, either in person or through their phones, the report stated.

A 43-year-old woman said: “He would want you to submit to him and even when he is wrong you can’t question him. And if I am complaining he would take out the gun and point it at me, and say that he is the man of this house. He never allowed me to visit my family — I must stay home.”

Women did not leave these relationships earlier for a range of reasons — some because of fear, some because they thought the abuse would stop.

A few said they did not know these were incidents of abuse and were unaware there was help to get out of such situations.

Some made excuses for the abuser, covering up injuries so that no one would know.

One woman, when family members called the police, lied to the police that there was no problem.

Some blamed themselves, feeling that they had done something to bring on the abuse.

According to the report the women arrived at the shelters in a state of trauma.

They spoke of feeling scared, confused, angry, sad, overwhelmed.

Most of the women interviewed had not heard of shelters before.

Some women were so broken and bereft they did not feel worthy of support.

Others, on arriving at the shelter were overwhelmed by the physical comforts which they lacked in their homes.

A 31-year-old Western Cape woman said: “I did not feel worthy of the support, I did not know how to feel and how to feel safe. It was strange at first. I burst out in tears when I saw a bathroom cause where I came from there was no water to wash.”

“The interviews with the 101 women reveal clearly the importance of shelters in providing a refuge, a place for healing and emotional and psychological support when women experience violence at the hands of intimate partners, family members or when raped.

“The experiences of the women interviewed point to unacceptable levels of violence, akin to torture or wars, at the hands of the men they once loved and who were themselves once loving, and by families who are expected to love and nurture.

“Shelters provided critical emotional and psychological support for most of the women interviewed, enabling them to leave shelter after a period of two to seven months with a sense of hope that they could rebuild their lives,” the report stated.

“However the interviews also revealed ongoing challenges that made it difficult for women to build fulfilling, violence-free lives.

“A lack of education and skills to find secure employment, and precarious financial situations which do not allow women to access suitable housing being the major challenges.”


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