Nine women at the Ikhaya Lethemba shelter in Braamfontein have made allegations of mistreatment. Picture : Tracey Adams

One of South Africa’s largest domestic abuse shelters has been accused of failing to protect its inhabitants, evicting women and children who have nowhere else to go and not investigating staff that have been accused of sexual and physical abuse.
Nine women staying at the Ikhaya Lethemba shelter in Braamfontein have approached the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University after the alleged mistreatment of themselves and their children.

While the Gauteng Department of Community Safety has labelled the allegations as “malicious”, it was taken to court yesterday by two of the women who were set to be evicted from the shelter.

According to the two women, who may not be identified for their own safety, on Thursday night they were forcibly removed from their rooms after being ordered to pack up their belongings by the shelter’s staff.

According to one of the women, she had missed the shelter’s 4.30pm curfew a few days before, and was removed for breaking this rule.

“My belongings were then taken to the ground level and left there. From the ground level. I am no longer able to gain entrance into the shelter,” her urgent application papers read.

“I do not know what my children and I will do now. I am at present unemployed and have nowhere else to go,” she said.

Yesterday afternoon, acting on behalf of CALS, advocate Zweli Makgalamele secured an interim order to allow the women to stay at the shelter pending the outcome of the urgent application, which the department said it intended to oppose.

However, the Saturday Star is aware of at least six other women who have also been sent eviction letters, not court-sanctioned eviction notices, from the shelter as of Thursday, ordering them to leave the shelter immediately.

CALS spokesperson Lee-Anne Bruce said the evictions were part of a greater resources issue at the shelter, which was struggling to maintain its residents.

She explained that by law, state-run institutions may not evict residents without a court order if it meant they would be rendered homeless, a common situation for women staying at the shelter.

She confirmed the nine women seeking help from CALS had made numerous accusations against the shelter, which it was investigating.

Among these allegations are that five incidents of sexual abuse of children have taken place under its roof, with one of the women claiming her child's genitalia were bitten by one of the staff.

The women have also said they were physically abused by staff for minor infractions. They claimed expired baby products had been given to the mothers in the centre, and “upskilling” courses offered by the institution were not accredited.

Department spokesperson Ofentse Morwane said it was concerned by the “allegations made by some of the victims of abuse accommodated at Ikhaya Lethemba.

“The shelter has a policy of receiving the clients as well as an exit plan. (It) requires clients to sign a six-month contract to stay in the shelter. While in the shelter they receive counselling, legal support regarding the cases they opened, medico legal support and skills development opportunities such as ancillary nursing, palliative care, child and youth care and home-based care, among others, to equip them with the necessary skills to be self-dependant and sustainable.

“Before clients exit from the shelter, they are given a month's notice and are assessed by social workers to determine their psycho-social capacity to be reintegrated back into society and also to establish their plans based on the skills they have obtained as well as how they are going to use them,” he wrote.

“It has emerged that some of the clients are refusing to exit Ikhaya Lethemba because they do not have alternative accommodation after their contracts have lapsed. It must be noted that the shelter is only required to intervene in a case where a client is destitute The refusal to exit Ikhaya Lethemba by any victim puts a strain on the capacity of the shelter to accommodate additional clients in the shelter and it deprives other victims of gender-based violence of their basic human rights to receive much deserving assistance to deal with their trauma,” he said.

However, Bruce argued that it was necessary for some of the residents to stay longer than six to nine months.

She also dismissed the “contracts” mentioned by Morwane, saying a court would have to order that the residents leave or must be given alternative accommodation.

Regarding the allegations of abuse, Morwane said: “The department further wants to dismiss as malicious allegations of physical and sexual abuse in the centre. No such cases were reported to authorities.”

However, Bruce denied this claim as well, saying her colleagues had sent the complaints through to the Department of Social Development.

The Saturday Star