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Home sweet hell: Calls for help surge from women locked down with abusers

Research from previous crises suggests violence against women and children will only get worse as the pandemic rages on.

South Africa’s streets are quiet, but the din of phones ringing at the country’s gender-based violence command centre in Tshwane and places of safety around the country is deafening, social workers say.  And experts warn that it is likely to get worse. 

The call centre receives between 500 and 1 000 calls a day from women and children confined to their homes as part of a 35-day government-mandated lockdown instituted to curb the spike of coronavirus disease cases in the country. 

And it’s not unexpected. 

South African women are five times more likely to be killed on account of their gender than other women worldwide, Statistics South Africa estimates. 

Now, many South Africans are stuck at home with their abusers. 

The centre’s data shows that, in the first four days of South Africa’s three-week lockdown, the number of daily calls doubled.  

Data-free messages to the centre’s phone number increased more than ten-fold and SMSs streamed in at double the usual daily rate too.   

By 11 April, the Centre had received 8 764 calls since the start of lockdown, according to the department of social development’s records.  People call about everything from domestic violence, attempted suicides, and very often, because they need food.

Pheladi Mamaila is a social worker at the gender-based violence command centre in Groenkloof, Tshwane.  

During her 12-hour shift at the centre, Mamaila supervises a team of 10 social workers.  She works the day shift for two days, followed by two night shifts and then four off days  while the other two teams take over.

In total, there are only 40 social workers, who field hundreds of calls per day, working the phones at the call centre.  

Each call takes at least half an hour as Mamaila and her team work to counsel people who have endured often traumatising abuse in their homes. 

In some cases, the workers call the police to intervene. “Other times the abuse is so bad that we send people to a shelter where they can be safe,” Mamaila says. 

But these days it’s not quite as simple as dropping someone at a shelter, explains  Moya Hay, head of the international charity organisation Salvation Army in Tshwane. She says:  “Everyone who comes to our shelter must be cleared of the coronavirus first.”

People waiting for test results are quarantined in hospital until they are taken to the shelter.

In addition, all staff and guests at the shelter are given protective gear and the facility is sanitised at least daily, Hay says. The number of people living in a room has also been cut. 

Since lockdown started, the number of requests Hay gets for accomodation at her home for abused women and children have been astounding. The organisation, however, does not release details about how many women and children they house.  

The charity also runs a round the clock counselling hotline. 

“Two nights ago, a lady called and she just cried,” Hay says. 

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Back at the command centre, even abandoned calls are returned to make sure the person on the other end is safe.  

But something’s got to give, Mamaila says: “The phone never stops ringing. As soon as you put the phone down another call comes through.”

Mamaila and the other supervisors have requested that the department of social development hire 16 more social workers to help field the deluge of calls that are steadily increasing as the lockdown stretches on. 

Just before the end of Mamaila’s shift, there are still 524 calls waiting to be answered.

She sighs. “We need man power.”

The department of social development did not respond to Bhekisisa’s request for comment. 

What kind of abuse are people reporting most frequently? 

Physical violence against women and childen, Mamaila says.  

This kind of violence is likely to get worse as the pandemic stretches on, warns Amber Peterman, the lead researcher of a rapid review published by the United States nonprofit think tank the Center for Global Development in April

The review is the first in a series of projects by an independent research team called the “Gender and COVID-19 Working Group”. This 45-page document draws together evidence on the impact of pandemics on violence against women and children from previous crises such as HIV and Ebola, and outlines nine different factors that might increase abuse. 

The results are clear, Peterman says: Quarantines and social isolation have been shown to increase women’s and children’s risk of being abused.


For the simple reason that they are more exposed to potential perpetrators. Controlling behaviors may also be coping mechanisms for perpetrators who feel a loss of control due to quarantine, the researchers write: “Isolation is an established abuse tactic for intimate partner violence even outside of pandemic contexts.” 

When men migrate away from home, the rate of intimate partner violence decreases. 

In a working paper published in March, researchers studied Bangladeshi men in poor households who were given loans which they could use to fund travel to find seasonal employment elsewhere. The result? Physical and sexual intimate partner violence dropped by 4% in just six months. 

While 4% doesn’t seem like much, the researchers note that the strong link between men not getting a loan and women experiencing violence is worth noting. 

Women in villages in which men did not receive the migration loans were 31% more likely to experience sexual violence, and 17% more likely to experience both sexual and physical violence. 

As South Africa’s ailing economy continues to tumble, fears about money might also contribute to abuse against women and children.

Peterman explains: “We already know many poor populations have increased levels of violence because of food insecurity and stressors related to everyday life.”

Financial stress and poverty have been linked to dangerous coping strategies such as substance abuse, taking on debt and transactional sex, which in turn make violence against women and children more likely, research published in the Annual Review of Economics in 2018 shows. 

But, the social security systems that are already in place in South Africa might help, Peterman argues. 

The researchers suggest that social safety nets such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, food voucher payments and tax relief will act as shock absorbers for the economic downturn the pandemic brings. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced last week that the Unemployment Insurance Fund has set aside R40-billion to help people who will not be able to work during lockdown. 

When it comes to violence against women, Peterman and her colleagues suggest these types of grants could be expanded to include cash transfers for households hard-hit by abuse and violence. 

She explains: “An important lesson from the research is to have some form of support for people who are heavily hit by abuse both financially and with complementary referral services including psychological support.”

In a World Bank review of 22 studies that investigated the impact of cash transfer programmes for women on the prevalence of intimate partner violence, the majority found these cash programmes lowered the rate of intimate partner violence, and was specifically successful for reducing physical and sexual violence. 

On the phone from the command centre, Mamaila is exhausted. She’s used to the long hours, but these days, even sleep doesn’t give her a reprieve from the violence she hears about each day. 

“When I go to bed at night,” she says, I dream about those women.”

Joan van Dyk was a health journalist, senior health journalist and news editor at Bhekisisa between 2017 and 2023.