Behind closed doors: The escalation of domestic violence during Lockdown
In a recent article by Human Rights Watch (HRW) about government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, it took the view that government should be responding to the health challenge in a way that fully respects the rights and dignity of everyone in the country.
A great cause for concern is abuse & domestic violence. According to HRW, domestic violence has sky-rocketed during the lockdown despite government’s encouragement of victims to report abuse to the Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Command Centre.
According to an article published on iol.co.za on 17 April 2020, ‘SAPS received more than 2333 complaints of gender-based violence (GBV) in just seven days of the lockdown’. Victims of domestic abuse are being locked into isolation with their abusers during this trying period – a nightmarish reality that many of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. According to this article posted by Time Magazine, abusers are using the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to isolate victims even further from their families and friends.
The spike in domestic violence cases in South Africa may be attributed to the fact that the government has failed to integrate a gender perspective in its response. This has perpetuated/exacerbated gender inequality in our country. Our government should not allow victims of abuse to be isolated from their support systems and resources that could assist them.
During lockdown, it is imperative that the SAPS is called upon to prevent, combat, and investigate reports of domestic violence in order to protect and secure women and children from domestic violence. The SAPS will also need to show particular sensitivity to women reporting abuse. It is, however, difficult for the SAPS to respond to domestic violence if victims are unable to report abuse.
Government could, and should, have foreseen the possibility of a surge in domestic violence based on the worldwide statistics available. It could, and should, have included, and still can include, specific measures in the lockdown regulations in order to prevent and curb the rise of domestic violence, as well as set up centres for victims at, for instance, grocery stores and pharmacies (which both offer essential goods and services) for victims to have easy and safe access to the assistance they may be in need of. Private security companies could be called upon to assist with transporting victims to centres of safety as they already act as essential service providers. This would assist SAPS in carrying out their constitutional mandate to prevent, combat, and investigate crime (i.e. domestic violence) and to protect and secure the inhabitants of South Africa (and victims of domestic violence).
Furthermore, government should have made provision for volunteers who wish to assist victims of domestic abuse by encouraging volunteers to apply for essential service permits. However, it was remiss in this regard. Government could, and should, have anticipated what would have happened in this already grave and all too ubiquitous malady.
In fact, so little attention was paid to domestic violence in the drafting of the lockdown regulations that essential services relating to the assistance of victims of domestic violence do not even make an appearance on the list of essential services. Provision is only made for ‘care services and social relief of distress provided to older persons, mentally ill, persons with disabilities, the sick, and children.’ If an inkling of a thought was given to victims of domestic violence surely government would have thought to have included services relating to assisting victims as an essential service?
On 13 April 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa wrote an open letter to the nation in which he voiced the fact that “there is no excuse, nor will there ever be any excuse, for violence against women, children, the elderly, members of the LGBTQI+ community, foreign nationals, not against anyone”. He further warned that “the criminal justice system is not on leave” and confirmed that “we will continue to bring all the state’s resources to bear to support vulnerable women and children, and ensure that perpetrators face the full might of the law”. These are strong sentiments but what has actually been done?
Regrettably, the executive steps taken to assist victims are far from adequate—simply providing victims with phone numbers to call and a bureaucratic GBV Command Centre is simply not enough. This merely pays lip service to a very serious and problematic phenomenon in our country. In controlling and abusive environments, victims do not necessarily have access to cell phones, airtime, data, or connectivity which makes it more difficult for them to report domestic abuse.
It is widely understood that domestic violence was already grossly under-reported. The lockdown escalates this problem. Unfortunately, the draconian regulations that have been put in place to protect citizens from Covid-19 adversely operate as a form of incarceration for victims, with no wardens or bars to protect them from their abusers. There is no respite for these victims as they are unable to leave their homes to seek assistance from family members and support systems. Children in abusive families who are largely distracted from domestic violence through activities at schools are now either forced to witness abuse or become victims thereto, or both. The regulations have also estranged some children from a parent—possibly parents who could assist their children trapped in an abusive home.
From a legal perspective, while physical abuse is criminalised as assault, either ‘common’ or with gross bodily harm (GBH), emotional abuse can, and should, be prosecuted as crimen iniuria as in many cases it has far more serious consequences, both psychologically and criminally.
If government is not going to relax the regulations anytime soon, it will need to promote access to assistance for victims of domestic violence by providing greater awareness and easier access to centres able to shelter and protect dignity, life, integrity, and freedom from violence.
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~ Roxanne Northover