Autumn-Winter 2003
Reclaiming Women's Spaces
A Review

By Moira Richards


This Issue

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Reclaiming Women’s Spaces: New Perspectives on Violence Against Women and Sheltering in South Africa 
Edited by Yoon Jung Park, Joanne Fedler and Zubeda Dango
Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development (+27 118545804 or 5)
406 pp.  R110.00 

South Africa boasts one of the world’s highest rates of reported domestic violence, although the actual figures are elusive. Some statistics say that one quarter of South African women suffer assault at the hands of the men they love. Others indicate that most of these women never speak of the abuse, much less lay a charge with the police. Whatever the numbers may be, the fact remains that the incidence of domestic  violence is inexorably on the increase.

In 1998 South Africa legislated a new Domestic Violence Act in acknow- ledgement of the extent of this problem and in an attempt to offer protection, via the issue of a protection order, to its victims. The act was particularly welcome because it recognised a broadened definition of “domestic rela- tionship” and “domestic abuse.” "Domestic relationship” was expanded to include not only marriage but cohabitation in a marriage-like relationship and also same-sex partnerships. It afforded protection too to people who do not live together but who are or have been involved with each other in a romantic, intimate or sexual relationship for however short or lengthy a period of time —even a single date or a one-night stand falls within the ambit of the act.

The definition of “domestic violence” lists and elaborates eleven specific 
types of controlling or abusive behaviour and makes provision for protection from any other actions not listed that have the potential to harm the com- plainant. These behaviours include the act, or even the threat, of physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, psychological or economic abuse as well as intimidation, harassment, stalking, damage to property and trespassing.

However, the Domestic Violence Act does not address the underlying reasons why abuse occurs, nor does it necessarily provide a long-term solution for women trapped in this kind of relationship. A few—too few— non-governmental initiatives have been implemented to try to redress these shortcomings, one such being the establishment of some dozen domestic violence shelters throughout the country. The shelters are independently funded and operated, and each offers the unique service that it is best able to provide.

Phambili (a Xhosa word meaning Onwards!), to cite one example, is a gender-violence strategy started about four years ago in the small town of George under the auspices of the town’s Business and Professional Women’s Club along with many other volunteers from the community. This multi-faceted project includes a domestic-violence legal advice desk and a shelter for battered women and their children. The legal advice desk operates from the local magistrates’ courts. Volunteers are trained in the workings of the Domestic Violence Act and are available to comfort, assist and advise members of the public who need to apply for a protection order under the terms of the act. The Phambili domestic violence shelter houses up to thirty women with their children for a period of three months. During this time the clients are encouraged to participate in an extensive empowerment pro- gramme designed to enable them to function more competently in their communities upon their return.

I used to meet regularly with the shelter staff of Phambile, so I was very interested in Reclaiming Women’s Spaces—New Perspectives on Violence Against Women and Sheltering in South Africa. I turned immediately tothe last chapter, entitled “Challenges for and Risks of Shelter Workers,” because I was curious about the “Challenges” in the chapter title, and concerned about  the “Risks.” This book, and especially this chapter, should be compulsory reading for every person who is involved in the administration or management of women’s shelters—especially those who do so from a relative distance, people like myself who have read all the feminist theory and who zip in and out of a shelter for a couple hours a week to fund-raise or do budgeting or project appraisal. As the chapter’s authors say, the profession of a shelter worker is one that is relatively new and therefore not fully understood. Nevertheless, their research shows that shelter workers are usually underpaid, overworked, subjected to unacknowledged stresses and inadequately debriefed. 

The Phambile shelter manager has recently been appointed to the project’s board of directors. If organisational constitutions are altered so as to include this kind of staff representation at the board level, perhaps the sheltering business will be able to avoid falling into the trap of contributing to the abuse of the women who staff the shelters whilst attempting to redress the abuse suffered by the shelter’s clients. 

I continued to read through this de facto manual on the subject of domestic violence shelters in a haphazard way, lighting first on one section, then another, before getting down to the book-reviewer’s business of reading the book from front to back. As I did so I came to see that many people who work in the shelter movement in South Africa feel that they do so in isolation. Initiatives like the Western Cape Network on Violence Against Women and the South African Women’s Shelter Movement have helped to facilitate an exchange between the various shelters. But there are nevertheless barely a couple dozen domestic-violence shelters in the whole of South Africa, and they remain isolated geographically from one another as well as, often, from the other needs of the communities in which they function. 

Chapters seven through nine discuss both the South African and global histories of sheltering as an antidote to domestic violence, including the debate about the actual effectiveness of sheltering as a solution for this particular social evil. They also take the reader on a guided tour of the shelters, pro- viding an experience of the daily challenges faced by workers on the ground. 

In October 2001 the Western Cape, one of South Africa’s nine provinces, published a “Draft Policy Framework for Developmental Social Welfare.” This document emphasises the importance of non-hierarchical involvement with decision-making from all the stakeholders involved in a social service project, especially input from the project’s clients, who should be in the best position of all to provide information about their own needs as well as to give feedback on the effectiveness of a particular social welfare project. One of the challenges that faces Phambili is to find a way for its clients to contribute to board decisions in this way without their feeling intimidated and without their having their input filtered through the staff hierarchy. The book emphasises the importance of this type of contribution with a number of short personal testimonies and poems written by survivors of domestic violence interspersed between. 

Chapters seven through eleven are invaluable as a how-to guide for people who work against domestic violence. The information has been compiled from the contributions of women who have been intimately involved with sheltering work—shelter managers, client counselors and former shelter clients. The book’s earliest chapters are no less compelling as a comprehensive collection of information on the ways that South Africans have struggled (not in vain) to combat violence against women. They describe the history of violence against women in South Africa and around the world, offering possible reasons why this social evil has been able to reach such epidemic proportions, and provide analyses of domestic violence’s far-reaching, and often unsuspected, con- sequences, such as the extra costs to state judicial and health systems, an increased incidence of HIV/AIDS and unwanted pregnancies, and decreased productivity in the workplace.

The book’s authors have gathered here a goldmine of information, having documented much of the work that has been accomplished in South Africa over the decades by legal, political and NGO systems. They have also elicited many valuable personal accounts from those who have personally encoun- tered these systems in one way or another. And, certainly not to be left unmentioned, the text is illustrated with some of South African cartoonist Zapiro’s work from the late 1990s—the kind of cartoon that would be funny if it did not leave you in tears. 

Research in Reclaiming Women’s Spaces includes work published right up to its date of publication. Hopefully, funding will be found for periodic updates.

(Moira Richards lives in a small town on the southernmost coast of Africa where she pursues her long-time career as an accountant, and her fledgling one as writer. Her book reviews can be found in a number of online and print publications. Moira can often be found lounging in the staff rooms of WomenWriters.net and MoonDance.org. Talk to her at mr@intekom.co.za)