Help free up government buildings for women’s shelters, MPs urged

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Women marched against violence in Dunoon, Cape Town, in February. The Commission for Gender Equality has urged the government to convert public buildings into shelters for victims. Archive photo: Peter Luhanga

There is an urgent need to convert government buildings into shelters for victims of gender-based violence, MPs were told on Tuesday.

The Commission for Gender Equality, an independent statutory body, was presenting a report on progress made since its 2018/19 investigation into shelters to the Public Works and Infrastructure Portfolio Committee.

The report had harsh words for social development departments in some provinces, where the Commission’s recommendations have not been followed, and for the SA Police Service (SAPS). The Commission found a shortage of shelters, particularly in the provinces of the North West, Limpopo and Northern Cape.

Namakwa District in the Northern Cape still does not have any shelter for victims of gender-based violence, the report pointed out, noting a “lack of commitment to providing social support services” equitably in the province.

In the Free State, the provincial department of social development still did not have a proper funding model for shelters, the Commission said. This showed a “blatant non compliance” with court rulings on the funding of social services and with the recommendations of the Commission itself.

In Limpopo, only two shelters catered to a population of over five million. Five new premises had been identified, but although construction had been due to start by March 2023, there was no indication that this had happened. As a result, the Limpopo department of social development “still does not have enough shelters to cater for its population”.

The investigation was also critical of SAPS, which appeared before the commission on 5 December 2019. The Commission had instructed SAPS to develop specialised training on gender-based violence for police officers, but progress was unsatisfactory, the Commission said.

“As the first point of contact with the complainants and/or survivors of GBV, members of the SAPS must be adequately and satisfactorily trained to handle GBV cases. In terms of the statistics released by Minister Bheki Cele for the July to September 2022 period, a double-digit increase was reported for crimes against women, and almost 1,900 cases were reported for crimes against children. The Commission deems it necessary for the SAPS to prioritise the recommended training to equip its members to handle GBV and related complaints effectively.”

The Commission noted there were “few to no” shelters for gay and lesbian people in many provinces. “It is not uncommon for gay men to be excluded from shelters, regardless of their status as victims” and “lesbian women may not be able to gain access to women’s shelters”.

“Shelters in South Africa play a crucial role in ensuring that survivors are protected and that justice is realised,” Dennis Matotoka, acting CEO of the Commission, told MPs.

He said during the investigation the Commission had heard complaints about shortages of beds, a lack of facilities and security. But some progress had been made, he said. The Department of Public Works had identified 54 buildings that could be converted into shelters, including six in the Western Cape and six in Gauteng, and lease agreements for these properties were being finalised.

He pleaded with the Department of Public Works to speed up the process of identifying and handing over buildings. “Our concern is that there is a slow pace of issuing those unused buildings for shelters, especially in a country where GBV is the pandemic that we are experiencing on a daily basis. We are requesting that the committee expedite this process. It requires a concerted effort from all of us.”

Committee chair Nolitha Ntobongwana (ANC) said the departments of Public Works and of Social Development needed to coordinate better. “There are properties that are abandoned and now used by criminals. It would be proper if those properties would be donated to Social Development,” she said.

This article by Matthew Hirsch was first published on GroundUp.

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