At the Senawi Thothozela Care Centre, located in the small town of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape Province, Lirato*, a 20-year-old first-year student at the local university, leans forward in her chair, her head fixed to the floor. She appears sad, tired, depressed and avoids any eye contact. Wearing a pink tank top, faded jeans and a small yellow handbag on her lap, Lirato came for her second assessment at this care center for rape survivors.
Early on a quiet Saturday evening, while returning home from the shops, a car suddenly stopped in the middle of the road and two men violently dragged it inside before speeding off. Then the car stopped in a dark place. Shocked and helpless, and before she could process what was happening, one man raped her while the other watched.
Overnight, Liratu became one of the newest survivors of sexual violence against women in South Africa. According to police statistics, 53,295 sex crimes were reported during the 12 months between April 2019 and March 2020, an increase of 1.7 percent over the previous reporting period. This equates to a sex crime every ten minutes. These are only cases reported to the police. Experts believe that the majority of crimes are never reported.
United Nations South Africa
On the front line
Some women, like Lerato, end up in care centers set up specifically to help survivors of sexual violence. There are more than 50 such centers scattered across South Africa that serve as ‘one-stop facilities’ or outposts on the front lines in the war against rape. Their main role is to “reduce secondary victimization, improve conviction rates and reduce the time” between the time a crime is committed and the perpetrator’s eventual conviction. The centers are attached to or located near hospitals, ensuring that survivors receive prompt medical care.
One example is the Senawi Thothuzila Care Center. Sinawi means “we are with you” in the Xhosa language, one of the country’s eleven official languages. It was at this center that the UN Resident Coordinator in South Africa, Nardos Bekele Thomas, and her team – which included the head of UN Women In South Africa, Ann Jithuku Chongwe met to sign an agreement with the government to revive struggling local care centers, among other projects.
The United Nations Joint Country Team and Government Plan aim to pilot a development approach targeting specific areas identified as most vulnerable to operational bottlenecks. These crises have slowed the delivery of basic social services to local communities. Three districts in the Eastern Cape Provinces, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal are expected to benefit from the program called the District Development Model.
For many years, comprehensive crisis centers have made remarkable progress in meeting expectations. In 2012-2013, the Sinawe Center won an award for being the best care center in South Africa.
An energetic, highly motivated and enthusiastic woman, Dr. Nomond Ndialvan heads the Senawi Centre, which is across the road from Mthatha General Regional Hospital. She wears many hats as an activist on gender, disability and mental health issues.
Qualified physician Dr. Ndiaalvan, 53, started as a volunteer in 2002, a year after the launch of the Sinoe Center. Despite the innumerable hurdles she faces as a manager, one can easily sense the high energy and enthusiasm she shows once she starts talking about her job at the center.
The administration needed doctors, counselors, mental health professionals and nurses to work here. “It was emotionally difficult figuring out how women were raped,” she recalls. Dr. Ndiaalvan herself as a disability activist says, “I realized that people with disabilities were targets of rape. The statistics on this are high.”
Searching for a long-term solution
Shocked by the gravity of sexual violence in the area, Dr. Ndialvan chose to work full-time at the center in March 2009. “There was no full-time doctor. Patients have been waiting all day for the university doctors to come, and they will only be seen at night.”
Over the years, the Thuthuzela model has gained fame. Incident reports from rape victims increased as more women felt safe enough to report cases to police and care centers. The plaintiffs have stepped up their game. The result has been higher conviction rates for perpetrators. Because care centers provide dignified and friendly settings, secondary trauma among survivors has been reduced.
“Now we see 60 to 80 patients per month in the low season,” says Dr. Ndiaalvan, sitting behind her desk a stone’s throw from Mthatha General Hospital. “During the holidays and festive seasons, rape cases rise to between 100 and 120 per month. We cover patients from a distance of up to 200 km. We bypass the municipality of OR Tambo.” OR Tambo is one of the poorest municipalities in the Eastern Cape Province, and is itself the poorest of the nine provinces of South Africa.
The challenge for the UN and the government is to restore care centers if South Africa is to find a lasting solution to the scourge of sexual or gender-based violence given its limited resources.
*Not her real name.
- The United Nations says that gender equality is not only a basic human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.
- one of 17 Sustainable Development GoalsSustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality aims to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.
- The importance of protecting women’s rights was highlighted duringCOVID-19A pandemic with a global increase in domestic and gender-based violence reporting.
- Globally, one in five women and girls, including 19 percent of women and girls aged 15-49, have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months.