Shelters in South Africa

Lawyers against Abuse (LvA) is a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide holistic legal and psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence (GBV) and to facilitate systemic change through strategic engagement with state actors and the communities in which we serve.

There are several definitions used for GBV. One researcher defines it as, “the general term used to capture violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between […] genders, within the context of a specific society.”[1] Recommendation 19 of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) defines GBV as, “…violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes acts that inflict physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty. Gender-based violence may breach specific provisions of the Convention, regardless of whether those provisions expressly mention violence”.[2]

LvA is based in Diepsloot, an informal settlement located in the northern part of Johannesburg, South Africa. Academic research has found that Diepsloot has some of the highest prevalence rates of GBV in South Africa.[3] Diepsloot is very densely populated with limited access to resources and service delivery. Diepsloot is also a very transitional community with individuals residing in Diepsloot for employment purposes with no intention to stay permanently. As a result, the population is quite diverse with a percentage of residence being foreign nationals.

Although LvA’s primary interventions involve providing direct legal services and therapy to our clients, some clients communicate imminent danger and require placement at a shelter or place of safety. Where a child is at risk, the Children’s Act requires that a social worker investigate the matter and take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the child.[4] Section 24(b) of Recommendation 19 of CEDAW, obliges the following, “States parties should ensure that laws against family violence and abuse, rape, sexual assault and other gender-based violence give adequate protection to all women and respect their integrity and dignity. Appropriate protective and support services should be provided for victims”. In South Africa, the Department of Social Development (DSD), including child protection NGO’s implementing statutory work, are mandated with such responsibility.

However, despite the obvious need for shelters in South Africa and the State’s responsibility to provide the same under CEDAW, shelter services are inadequate throughout the country. A 2012 research report, “Shelters Housing Women Who have Experienced Abuse: Policy, Funding and Practice” containing information from five shelters in Gauteng detailed the problems faced by abused women seeking access to its services.[5] The report found that most women who enter the sheltering environment are unemployed, with no source of income and only have a high-school education. This is confirmed by LvA’s own experience where 56% of adult clients have no form of employment (informal or otherwise). Some clients do not even have a high-school education. This level of vulnerability leaves women with few choices regarding their personal well-being.

The 2012 research report further found:

  • Gauteng province DSD’s funding model for shelters is inadequate and does not meet the operational needs.
  • The financial restrictions that shelters experience have a direct impact on the inability to render the required and comprehensive services to both women and their children. Accordingly, the skills development programmes are not effective in assisting women secure employment after exiting the shelter.[6]

GBV victims face further challenges accessing shelters depending on their personal circumstances. For example, LvA has faced tremendous challenges when trying to place a woman without documentation as some shelters are unable to accommodate such women. Additionally, many shelters require individuals to provide a CAS number as proof that a criminal case has been reported. This requirement limits the assistance accorded to women who are in real danger but do not feel they can open a criminal case for a variety of reasons including their relationship with the perpetrator, financial dependence on an abuser, family pressures, etc. In some cases, a victims’ own shame and/or guilt may prevent them from opening cases where abuse has occurred over a long-term basis. As a result, these women are unable to access some shelters and remain vulnerable to further abuse.

In Diepsloot, there are no shelters available for GBV victims. As such, LvA is required to place its clients at shelters in other areas, often located far from Diepsloot. While there is one temporary place of safety, this does not cover the core need of an established shelters that can provide long-term care. It is for this reason that LvA continues to engage with all stakeholders in order to work towards solutions to these challenges.

By Beverly Gumede, LvA Legal Officer


[1] Bloom, Shelah S. 2008. “Violence Against Women and Girls: A Compendium of Monitoring and Evaluation Indicators.” Carolina Population Center, MEASURE Evaluation, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

[2] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Section 6. South Africa ratified CEDAW in 1995 and its operation protocol in 2005 without reservation.

[3] Lawyers against Abuse [internet] available from

[4] Children’s Act 38 of 2005, Chapter 9, section 150, subsection 2.

[5] Bhana, K, Vetten, L, Makhunga, L, and Massawe, D. (2012). Shelters Housing Women Who have Experienced Abused: Policy, Funding and Practice. Johannesburg: Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre.

[6] Commission for Gender Equality (institution established in terms of section 181 of the Republic of South Africa) – Investigation Report, State of Shelters in South Africa, ISBN number 978-1-920308-80-3, Page 19.

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