The War on Domestic Violence: Strong women battle domestic violence and empower others despite social challenges and legal injustices

By Dianne Lake

“The individual woman has to be resilient in order to survive.”  — Nuraan Osman, Ihata Women’s Shelter.

In the center of the room, sitting at the end of a semi-circular table facing a large podium, the South African Police Service (SAPS) awaited their impending roast. Next to the SAPS sat the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service, a task force created to oversee the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act (DVA), prepared with a carefully detailed outline of the police service’s failings. Parliamentary members eager to pepper the South African Police Service with questions about their continuous blunders finished off the semi-circle, and members of various NGOs working for women’s rights filled the rest of the room’s seats. The committee chair, seated behind the podium, set a no-nonsense tone from the meeting’s start by scolding the SAPS representatives for not having their commander present.

On that morning, the South African Parliament’s Portfolio Committee of Police was receiving a pivotal report on the implementation of the Domestic Violence Act from the Civilian Secretariat. It was both a powerful call to action and a demand for accountability – evidence of a desperate hope and need for concrete progress and improvement.

In 2011, the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service was mandated to monitor the compliance of the Domestic Violence Act by the SAPS and to make recommendations for changes and disciplinary actions on cases of non-compliance. This was their first report tabled before parliament. The DVA was created to provide an accessible legal tool to stop domestic abuse.

South Africa has the highest reported rate of domestic violence in the world, with approximately 60,000 South African women and children suffering domestic violence per month in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. According to Nuraan Osman, the director of the Ihata Women’s Shelter in Cape Town, “a woman is violated every 30 seconds in South Africa.

Sexual violence creates immense barriers for girls seeking education, work, and the basic right to healthy daily lives without constant fear of being sexually assaulted. The domestic violence crisis in South Africa attracted international attention earlier this year following the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by her boyfriend, South African track star and double amputee Oscar Pistorius. Despite growing awareness of the issue, more action is needed to reduce the high incidence of domestic violence throughout South Africa

Though the DVA is well written, a wide range of challenges has affected its implementation. In a young democracy such as South Africa, the blame for poor implementation of a law dealing with gender roles lies not only with the South African Police Service but also with a society deeply rooted in a history of violence and patriarchy.

Intimate partners and male relatives perpetrate most acts of domestic violence. In cases in which women have the courage to seek help from authorities, many fall into the same patriarchal trap. Police officers often do not take domestic violence seriously and male religious leaders sometimes tell victims that rape within a marriage is not a crime, and consult with the perpetrators instead. According to Osman, “women have not been taught that no religion condones abuse. Often times women seek assistance from the clergy and are told that you should take the abuse of your husband because he is your provider.”

A church poster raises awareness about the prevalence of domestic abuse and rape in South Africa (Lake/TYG).
A church poster raises awareness about the prevalence of domestic abuse and rape in South Africa (Lake/TYG).

According to Osman, women are dangerously manipulated into believing that society and religion condones abuse, and the clergy are further perpetuating the idea that a husband has complete power over his wife. “Religious leaders should acknowledge the need for shelters, because even though they are faced with daily cases of domestic violence, they are not sufficiently schooled in the dynamics of gender based violence.”

A similar lack of knowledge and awareness impedes the work of the South African Police Service in the implementation of the DVA, as many members of SAPS have been insufficiently trained in the content and implementation of the Act. At one point during the presentation to Parliament, Dianne Kohler Barnard, a member of Parliament and the shadow minister of police, gasped in fury and disgust when it was revealed that in some cases women were sent by the police to serve their protection orders themselves. “It’s infuriating to hear that there are victims who have to go and serve the protection orders themselves,” Kohler Barnard said during a break in the presentation. “Why don’t you just give them a gun and shoot them? Because in many instances it’s a death sentence.”

According to Kohler Barnard, the problem lies where the power is:  “Nobody has the right to instruct SAPS to do this stuff, so nothing happens. We’ve already passed the bill. It’s law. What more can we do? It’s just not taken seriously.”

In an environment where domestic violence is not always taken seriously and in which women constantly experience abuse, exposure to HIV, and an unresponsive justice system, it is remarkable when women stand up for their rights. Though the government and civil society are not fulfilling their responsibilities to protect women and women’s rights, women across the country are organizing shelters for survivors of domestic violence and stepping in to support those whose rights have been violated. The Ihata Shelter is one such group.

Inside the gates of the shelter, which is run by Nuraan Osman, colorful pieces of repurposed material decorate a blooming garden and giggles and playful screams emanating from the day care echo in the background. Other shelters around Cape Town, including the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, and St. Anne’s Home, provide similar atmospheres of growth and empowerment.

The women’s shelters in South Africa are making an active effort to conquer their victims’ troubles through empowerment. Most shelters provide residential care, medical support, childcare, and legal and economic empowerment services, all without any cost to the victims.

However, there is a general consensus between the women directing the shelters that women’s rights are not being championed in South Africa; that the government is not adequately supportive of shelters’ work and police are not properly trained to help victims of domestic violence. There are only sixty-four women’s shelters in all of South Africa, and all of these are independently run. The government run shelters, known as Khuselekas, are extremely ineffective and only three Khuselekas exist throughout the country.

Even the organizations that do exist have been forced to shrink due to financial constraints, and less money is available for women’s work. Most women’s shelters in South Africa are barely funded by the government, if at all. With lack of resources and independent economic stability, poor women face the biggest challenge and are subject to a repeat cycle of domestic violence that adversely affects their children.

Despite the constant setbacks, the dedication of shelter staff to their work continues because they are motivated by the premise of giving back regardless of the costs. The six women leading the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement shared their motivations for continuing in this line of work:  “It’s a fulfillment that’s worth more than money, when you see a woman being empowered,” said Joy Lange of St Anne’s Home. For Jenny Arendorf, the director of A Place of Hope women’s shelter, motivation comes from helping women find their self-worth: “For somebody to realize ‘I’m not that piece of rubbish somebody else told me I was all these years. I have worth. I have potential.’ THAT is a feeling that no one else can give you.”

All these women felt fulfilled by seeing other women empowered, and work hard to actively change their society into one that will be better for their own children.

As the presentation concluded in Parliament, the committee chair ordered the South African Police Service to return to the next review with a detailed progress report of the issues addressed. Attendees departed the presentation with a hope that the next review of the implementation of the DVA would not simply be a repeat of the last. Arendorf knows that the goal is clear: “I want this society in which I live in to be better. I’m an African child, and I want my grandchildren and great grandchildren to be here, but the present violence is what I’m working to eradicate so that they can live in a better society.”

The South African government has made great strides in creating laws that give more opportunities to women but those laws face the same challenge as the Domestic Violence Act: implementation. “Equality is quantified in the law, but not applied in reality,” said Ilse Ahrends, the psychologist and empowerment manager of the Saartjie Baartman Women Centre. The right things are said but not done. The shadow of apartheid and conservatism continues to pose a threat to women throughout the country.

Dianne Lake ’16 is in Ezra Stiles College. She can be reached at