Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is truly endemic in South Africa. Outside of a war zone, South Africa is considered to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women. Research shows that 32% of men in South Africa have used some form of violence against their partners and 28% have committed rape. Tragically, prevalence rates often multiply in poor and marginalised communities such as Diepsloot, the informal settlement where LvA works. Research recently conducted by the University of Witwatersrand revealed that 56% of men surveyed in Diepsloot admitted to committing some form of physical or sexual violence against a woman in the past 12 months, with one third using both physical and sexual violence. A majority (60%) had enacted multiple instances of violence. These prevalence rates are more than double compared to other parts of the country.
Compounding the problem in Diepsloot is the lack of comprehensive support services for SGBV victims who are expected to navigate a complex and technical legal process alone, while facing institutional and systemic barriers that often lead to secondary victimisation. Furthermore, the existing legislative framework fails to take into account the complexities of the trauma associated with violence and the negative impact on the psychological wellbeing of victims. Research has shown that SGBV can result in significant mental health distress for victims, with clinical depression and posttraumatic stress disorder rates being significantly higher among abused women than non-abused women. Other psychological consequences of GBV include: fear, uncontrollable emotions, helplessness, humiliation, guilt or shame, emotional numbing and suicidal thoughts or attempts. Where victims are under threat of ongoing abuse, the psychological impact intensifies to such an extent that their symptoms prevent optimal daily functioning. When left untreated, the compounded after-effects of such trauma can be debilitating and lead to serious psychological ill-health. Access to mental health-care services and other resources and support decreases the likelihood that victims may develop severe symptoms. However, access to mental health-care services is severely limited in Diepsloot, while mental health-care services specifically tailored for victims of SGBV is virtually non-existent.
Established in 2011, LvA’s mission is to provide holistic legal and psychosocial support to victims of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, domestic violence and child abuse, and to facilitate structural change through strategic engagement with state actors and the communities in which we serve. Operating under a community-based model designed to bring about change at both individual and systemic levels, LvA has been based in the Diepsloot community since 2014.
LvA works in four key areas: legal services, psychosocial support, state actor engagement and community engagement.
LvA attorneys assist victims of domestic violence to secure protection orders. This includes completing applications, explaining the submission and service procedures, and preparing clients for and accompanying clients to their final court hearings. LvA also works closely with police officers to ensure that the orders are enforced.
LvA also provides comprehensive support to victims pursuing criminal cases of rape and assault. LvA assists with the initial police report, follows up with the investigating officer to ensure the case is progressing through the criminal justice system, and supports the client through trial, including attending trial hearings and liaising with the state prosecutor.
LvA therapists provide individual and group therapy sessions utilising narrative therapy, supportive therapy, or drama therapy techniques depending on the needs of the client. The therapeutic process is initially focused on emotional containment and debriefing around the SGBV-related trauma, and later focuses on building resilience and agency, addressing feelings of shame and/or guilt, and working towards reintegration within the client’s respective communities. Where a client is simultaneously engaging with the civil and/or criminal justice system, therapy will also address any fears or concerns the client feels around the justice system process, as well as any secondary victimisation they may have been subjected to through their interactions with state actors.
Using a holistic approach, LvA also works to empower primary caregivers with critical skills on how they may support their children who have experienced trauma. Many primary caregivers express feeling overwhelmed and have had difficulties in understanding the psychological impact of trauma on their children. In response, LvA provides workshops for caregivers on a quarterly basis. In these workshops, participants explore the psychological impacts of trauma on a child using role-play and personification and utilise a persona doll to practice supporting their child.
State Actor Engagement
Through LvA’s repeated engagement with police officials serving Diepsloot, we have identified the need for greater accountability and capacitation. LvA works closely with the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Diepsloot, as well as the specialised Family Violence, Child Protection, and Sexual Offenses Unit with jurisdiction over Diepsloot to address systemic gaps and shortcomings and build local capacity through resource materials and training. LvA continuously strives to foster a healthy partnership with the police in order to improve the efficacy with which the police respond to GBV cases.
LvA conducts targeted outreach throughout Diepsloot to raise community members’ awareness of GBV, legal rights and remedies, and LvA’s services. For example, LvA holds weekly talks at local government clinics in Diepsloot and maintains a monthly segment on a local radio station broadcast throughout Diepsloot. LvA is also an active member of the Diepsloot Stakeholder Forum and the Local Drug Action Committee, a DSD-initiative designed to address substance abuse and other social ills. LvA’s community engagement team also regularly networks with other local service providers to maintain strong relationships between stakeholders.