A one-stop haven for GBV victims aims to fight the scourge of domestic violence
Nomsa Ramathibela is terrified to leave her home in Joburg each day. “I always look over my shoulder, whether I am walking or driving.
Women are attacked and targeted even in public spaces. They’re being kidnapped, drugged, and robbed.” While the steady rise in gender-based violence (GBV) has only recently been acknowledged as a grave concern in South Africa, the 48-year-old says she has never felt safe here.
“Every day you hear of gruesome crimes. It leaves one numb and emotionally paralysed. “Even if you are not a primary victim, your loved ones are affected which makes you a secondary victim. Or you are a tertiary victim as you pick up these stories in the media or on social media.”
Ramathibela mentions a few of the recent cases which she says have kept her up at night. “We had the double murder and double rapes in Rhodes Park, the Quantum serial rapes, and the murders of seven women and children raped and buried in a house in Vlakfontein.
“We have the Dros restaurant rape, the brutal rape of an elderly woman in Soweto and the rape of her grandchild.” “There are too many to mention especially during the lockdown. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Despite fearing that she may suffer a similar fate to the thousands of women who have been murdered by men, Ramathibela leaves her home each day determined to contribute to the fight against gender-based violence.
She is one of the several brave women and men who give up their time to help victims at the Ikhaya Lethemba centre in Braamfontein. The centre, which was recently praised by the government for their outstanding work, is a one-stop centre.
On average, the centre attends to more than 300 victims from Gauteng each month. However, with the lockdown, the numbers have drastically increased.
“Helplessness in the hands of the abuser, stress and frustration, and displaced anger as a consequence of losing income, has resulted in staggering rates of gender-based violence cases,” said Ramathibela, the deputy director of Professional Services at Ikhaya Lethemba.
“The lockdown has also made it more difficult for her and her team to assist victims. “It brought so many disruptions … Many women and children were confined in the same space with their abusers. For many, home is not a safe place to be. (Service) provision was mainly through toll-free lines. Some women don’t have access to phones.”
The centre was established by the Gauteng Department of Community Safety in 2004 to assist women and children who are victims of sexual, domestic and general criminal violence.
“We receive an average of 50 new intakes a month as walk-ins or referrals. We support an average of 300 survivors monthly through therapy, court, and other psychosocial support services. We serve clients who are residents in the shelter and clients who access services from outside the shelter.”
It is a free service that runs 24/7. “We encourage women to build up resilience, providing them with opportunities to build self-confidence by providing an enabling environment to heal, learn and grow strong emotionally.”
“We have professional staff, that includes social workers, professional nurses and doctors, that assist in the physical and healing process.
“Women and their dependent children are accommodated for a period of six months and are offered continuous support including physical and emotional safety and healing.”
While the centre mainly caters to women and children, it does see its fair share of men. “Although they cannot be accommodated in the shelter, the service is offered to them.”
Ramathibela has been part of the set-up since 2008. While it is challenging, she finds each day a reward. “What drives me is the passion and compassion I have for my work, making a difference and seeking justice for the vulnerable. It’s an opportunity to influence policies to protect women and dependent children.”
The centre was recently praised by the government, something Ramathibela takes great pride in. “The centre is now being replicated in Evaton and there are plans to also have others around Gauteng.
“It is a sanctuary for healing. We encourage our residents to be active participants in their criminal justice matters and stand up against their perpetrators.”
Ramathibela has also been crucial in helping improve the centre during challenging times. “I started working at Ikhaya Lethemba in 2008 as a residential/facility manager. The centre had structural deficiencies that needed major work. We conquered that process and now the centre functions as a well-oiled machine.”
“I then moved to head professional services in 2012. We have achieved so much. My biggest project was to increase the capacity of forensic social work programmes in the province from 4 to 91. We approached the University of Cape Town and Wits, who trained social workers. The course is now formalised at UCT. Now all courts have access to forensic social workers.”
“We also developed healing tools and self-care kits like survivor journals.” While Ramathibela and her team have gone above and beyond to help victims of gender-based violence, she says it’s time the government and the public do more.
According to SAPS crime stats for 2019/20, Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State recorded the highest numbers of contact crimes against women.
These included murder, sexual offences and assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm. “It is a monster that should be attacked from its roots.There should be no bystanders; it is everyone’s business. Societies should stop protecting perpetrators and expose abuse and its ugly head.”
“Women should report the abuse. Help is available. They shouldn’t suffer in silence. We need them to reach out.”
She says GBV does not differentiate between colour, class or age; it affects everyone. “Families can also play a pivotal role in the reintegration process to the community and stop blaming the victim. It is important to understand the cycle of violence and the tactics that the abuser uses to isolate the victims from everyone. Children who witness their parents as victims should be prioritised as primary victims.”
It requires a concerted effort from all structures and sectors of society, she says. “Awareness and educational programmes in early childhood centres, schools and tertiary institutions are important.
“There also needs to be bail opposition for perpetrators, and sanctions and sentencing of perpetrators needs to be tough.”
She adds that support services for males who have mental health problems and anger issues should also be established. “Liquor outlets need to be controlled, as we learned from Covid-19 lockdown regulations,” she says.
“Once we understand the root causes, it can assist in developing effective preventative measures. Zero tolerance should be adopted and women empowerment programmes must be elevated.”
As the Ikhaya Lethemba centre continues to be inundated with victims, Ramathibela’s hope is that in years to come gender-based violence will be a thing of the past.
“If we make the effort, we can eradicate it,” she says.