Imagine being trapped in your own home with your abuser. With no escape, and the only way out being a permit allowing you to do so. Terrifying thought, isn’t it? The thing is, for most women in South Africa, this has been their reality since the presidency imposed a nation-wide lockdown in a bid to stop the rapid spread of coronavirus, known as COVID-19.

The initial declaration of the COVID-19 state of disaster on 15 March 2020 led to the nation panic buying hand sanitizers and stocking up on other essential goods. Once the nationwide lockdown was announced citizens were, rightfully, concerned about their livelihoods as well as the crumbling economy.

However, despite the fact that an estimated 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence and gender-based violence has been recognized as an international public health and human rights issue, not many took cognisance of the possible increase in gender-based violence (“GBV”) that would ensue as a result of the lockdown.

Lockdown Crime Statistics

Whilst Police Minister Bheki Cele (“Minister Cele”) in a statement released on 5 April 2020, welcomed the general decrease in serious and violent crimes, the figures relied on are those contained in a report that is yet to undergo the necessary verification and endorsements and, the 2019-2020 National Crime Statistics are scheduled to only be released later in the year.

Despite this, Minister Cele has confirmed that these preliminary reports show a decrease in serious and violent crimes, which Minister Cele attributes to, amongst other factors, the prohibition of the sale and movement of liquor since the COVID-19 nationwide lockdown.

An analysis of crime conducted by comparing the first week of the lockdown to the same period in 2019, confirmed that murder cases had dropped from 326 to 94, while rape cases dropped from 699 to 101. Cases of assault with intention to inflict grievous bodily harm, dropped from 2 673 to 456 and trio crimes, i.e. car and truck hijacking, business as well as house robberies, dropped from 8 853 to 2 098 – these are the type of crimes that are known to instil fear amongst citizens. 

Gender-based Violence during Lockdown

Whilst 87 920 was the figure that initially made the nation sit up and pay attention to the scourge of GBV across the country, it has subsequently come to light that this was the number of calls or complaints received through the GBV Command Centre in 2019. Once all reports for the current year have been consolidated, the figures will be measured against the number of calls or complaints received through the GBV Command Centre in 2019.

Notwithstanding what is set out above, Minister Cele has noted that the number of complaints in relation to GBV remained high and concerning. Minister Cele further revealed that over 2 300 calls or complaints had been registered from the beginning of the lockdown on 27 March 2020 to 31 March 2020 and from these, only 148 suspects were charged.

Whilst Minister Cele’s contention that the general decline in serious and violent crimes is due to the ban on the sale of alcohol during this nationwide lockdown may be true, one needs to take cognisance of the fact that people may have acquired large amounts of alcohol before the lockdown which they are still able to consume. Given that most cases of gender-based violence are reported following a weekend of alcohol consumption this may be the reason these numbers remain high. It is also imperative to note that a lot of instances of GBV do not involve alcohol at all.

However, in ensuring that the South African Police Service would be armed with the requisite amount of capacity to respond to related complaints, the Minister urged the management of the South African Police Service to reinforce the Family Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Units  (“FCS Units”) at police stations.

These FCS Units have secured an improved rate of life sentences in the past due to members of the South African Police Service working tirelessly around the clock towards securing convictions and long-term sentences of perpetrators of GBV. This should remain the practice even beyond the lockdown.

Options Available to Survivors of Gender-based Violence during lockdown

The question remains as to what is to happen to those who are currently subjected to GBV and are, due to the nationwide lockdown, isolated from the people and the resources that could help them? They are encouraged to contact their local police station or the GBV Command Centre which may be reached on 0800 428 428 or by dialling *120*7867# free from a mobile cell phone.

Moreover, despite the courts not being fully operational currently, matters pertaining to domestic violence fall within the ambit of matters that the Courts are attending to during the lockdown. The courts will therefore attend to your matter should you need to bring an application for a Protection Order, which is a document aimed to protect the survivor by setting out the conditions that the abuser must adhere to, failing which the abuser can be arrested and charged. Examples of conditions contained in a Protection Order, are, inter alia:

  • Abuser shall not commit any act of domestic abuse;
  • abuser shall pay rent, mortgage, or other monies, such as child support; and
  • abuser shall hand over firearms or dangerous weapons to the police.

The first step in obtaining a Protection Order is filling out what is referred to as a Form 2 which is available at police stations and courts as well as on the Justice and Constitutional Development website. Although the form is available at police stations, they may send you to the courts for help with filling out the form. The police should also give you Form 1, which is a document explaining your rights.

Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to obtain a Protection Order against a person to whom you have to return home to, it is imperative to note that  if you are hurt or need an alternate place to stay as a result of the abuser and subsequent abuse, especially during the nationwide lockdown, the police must help you to get medical treatment and help you find a place of safety.

In this regard, government has given assurance that shelters for the vulnerable will remain functional during the lockdown and notes that a person’s place of safety may be with a family or friend. The police will then facilitate this movement.

Moreover, whilst frightening, it is also common for people who are subjected to GBV to remain in the abusive situation due to fear of their abuser “finding out” about them having approached authorities for assistance. In such instances, it is important to note that someone else can make the application on their behalf. All they need is the person’s written permission to do so.

Enhle Mtolo – Candidate Attorney – HJW Attorneys