Safe house a refuge from gender violence

Women and children who are passing through The Safe House.

For the women and children at The Safe House in the south peninsula the festive season was far from festive.

Kathy Cronje is the founder and CEO of The Safe House and a member of the Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement. She says perpetrators of domestic violence appear to be so much more aggressive now, and children are being violated as much as women have been.

“Men are burning or tearing the woman’s ID books so they cannot get jobs and are held hostage in their homes,“ she says. ”One man followed his wife to work, beating her along the way, so she could not go to work.“

According to her, there has been a noticeable increase in rape cases, including spousal rape, and a lot of physical abuse.

“We are dealing with incidents of harassment, stalking, emotional and psychological abuse, and economic abuse. Some men are prepared to let their children starve while they use the household money to buy drugs, or unless the woman agrees to have sex with them.

“When we asked what was different this time to make them leave, the women all said that it was the sheer level of aggression; each of them thought they were going to die at the hands of the perpetrator.“

Meanwhile some of the children in the shelter, especially the boys, act out the violent behaviour of their abusers, she says.

“They are aggressive and violent, and the mothers feel helpless.”

Thirty-five women and children sought refuge in the safe house last October. There were 11 in the house in November and 30 for December. Since March last year, when the pandemic hit, 229 women and children have sheltered in the home.

They stay about two weeks. Many have no option but to return to their abusers, says Ms Cronje, but some flee to relatives; others go to friends as they try to find work to secure an independent, safe life.

Lanie (not her real name) says she ended up at The Safe House after her cousin raped her.

“My experience at the safe house was one of a kind,” she says. “I felt safe and I felt loved. I learnt to deal with everything I’ve been going through: the hurt and the pain. I also overcame many obstacles. I met so many wonderful people – who were so down to earth – and from them I learned that I’m not the only one going through what I did.”

Lanie says The Safe House also helped her and her mother overcome their differences.

“I’m now living with my mom again; we have such a great relationship now. I have a little baby boy whose the most beautiful baby in this world. My life has changed around, and I am now studying HR management.”

Mental illness is often one of the unseen consequences of domestic violence, Ms Cronje says.

“We still have many people arriving who are undiagnosed and therefore have not been treated. We estimate that around 75 to 80% of the ladies who come to us suffer from some form of depression, anxiety, PTSD etc, as a result of trauma, in some cases prolonged trauma.”

Ms Cronje says there have been two cases of Covid-19 at the shelter during the first wave of the pandemic, but, so far, none during the second wave.

Dr Wendy Waddington, manager of medical services at False Bay Hospital, says the hospital is giving its support to the shelter and its residents and advising how to prevent Covid-19 infection.

Ms Cronje says she know of a family who lost a father and daughter within four days of one another to Covid. “Respect this virus – it is real, and it does kill.“

She thanked those who have helped the shelter and says donations are always welcome. The shelter is looking for volunteers to run online activities. Visit www.thesafehouse.org.za for details. Women who are victims of gender violence can call the National Shelter Movement’s hotline at 0800 001 005 to get help finding a shelter.