Safe Houses For GBV Survivors Not Safe?

Women who have suffered abuse mainly at the hands of their partners flee their homes for safe houses but how safe are they?

When Angela Noko* felt she had suffered enough of routine physical beatings from her husband, Tebogo, she recalled several domestic violence community awareness meetings in her rural home of Ntalale, in Gwanda South.

She had heard of a safe house for people in her predicament, located in Gwanda Hospital, about 75 kilometres from Ntalale.

In June 2020, Noko, who had endured physical violence during the COVID-19 lockdown, fled her homestead and sought shelter at the Gwanda One-stop centre.

However, Noko and other survivors at safe houses are far from being safe, a parliamentary report reveals.

According to a recent parliamentary Portfolio Committee report on Women Affairs, Community and SMEs Development: “The Committee witnessed lack of office and accommodation space at safe houses and one-stop centres.”

“At Gwanda One-Stop Center, the Committee was told by officers operating the centre that there was no office space for private counselling services,” reads the report in part.

Lack of food is another setback for survivors, “food shortages for clients were also mentioned as affecting the smooth running of Gwanda One-Stop Centre, which was depending on food from the hospital administration.”

Noko says she feels trapped in the safe house, which is located at a Government hospital.

“I thought I would be safe and access all help I needed here. It’s not offering anything close to what I used to hear during domestic violence community meetings in my village,” says Noko.

Noko and other survivors are meant to easily access holistic services such as psychosocial support, legal and police services under one roof and free of charge.

However, COVID-19 has led to a sudden halt in the provision of safe space for victims of gender-based violence, the report adds.

The COVID -19 pandemic has exposed women and girls to sexual, physical, emotional, and socio-economic violence.

The lockdown period “increased risks of gender-based violence in scale and scope as victims were trapped in ‘lockdown’ with their abusers due to restricted movements,” reads the report.

Gender-based violence cases sharply increased by 70%, and Noko is part of these statistics. In Gwanda, 75% of women and 25% of males have accessed GBV services.

On 25 October 2007, Zimbabwe’s Domestic Violence Act (Chapter 5:16) came into force, seeking to address many forms of gender-based violence. In addition, it set the ground for the establishment of the Anti-Domestic Violence Council, which among other things aims to provide for the establishment of safe houses to create a safe and supporting environment for survivors of GBV.

Noko however says safe shelters at provincial centres render them inaccessible to people facing abuse in outlying districts.

“Gwanda town is far from Ntalale, and transport costs are too high. I had to save money for transport and other necessities for about two months.”

To reduce the distance travelled by survivors, the committee has appealed to Government to decentralise safe shelters to the grassroots to ensure access to all requiring GBV services by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

Additionally, most safe houses are located in city centres, with restricted space, making it difficult to engage in life skills and economic empowerment training programmes such as gardening, poultry and sewing.

The Parliamentary committee says Government did not consider GBV service delivery as a critical or essential service during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

For Monica Mthunzi, a social worker in Gwanda, it would be better for safe houses to be far from their homesteads.

“We have heard cases where perpetrators and relatives just walk in and beg survivors to go back home. If they are far away, transport costs might deter perpetrators from accessing the homes,” add Mthunzi.

She adds that current safe houses are not conducive for rehabilitation, as staff members are not well trained.

“Most victims return to their homes in worse off condition that they came in at. They feel let down by the poor services offered. There is little privacy for counselling.”

“So, one would think it’s better to return home and brave the abuse. What is being spoken of as a safe house is far from reality. I think awareness programmes should not raise too much expectation,” suggests Mthunzi.

Source: The Citizen Bulletin

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