In South Africa, COVID-19 compounds domestic violence crisis…and leaders fight back

By Kail Cohen

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. On average, every 60 seconds, twenty people are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. This translates to approximately 10 million women and men each year.

COVID-19 is exacerbating the danger victims of domestic violence endure due to shuttered businesses and the new paradigm of work from home mandates. Combined, these factors are forcing victims into sheltering in place with their abusers.

According to Dr. Amanda Stylianou, in a recent Rutgers University study published in the journal Violence Against Women, “In our COVID-crisis world, families exiting domestic violence shelters are facing a range of stressors impeding their ability to gain independence and remain free from their abusive partners.”

While domestic violence is worldwide, South Africa has the highest rate of femicide in the world. A 2010 study by the Medical Research Council estimated more than 70 percent of South African women had experienced sexual abuse and that every eight hours a woman in the country is killed by her domestic partner.

As I continue reading about the impact of COVID-19 on victims of domestic violence, my mind has been racing, wondering how the women I interviewed last year in Lenasia, South Africa, are managing in the midst of a global pandemic. 

In Feb. 2019, I met Mashudhu Makumbene, then a 28-year-old South African woman. The year prior, Makumbene’s partner came home in a drunken rage, she recounted. She recalled being beaten so severely that she lost consciousness, and woke up in a pool of her own blood. “I don’t know whether he hit me with his fist, an iron, or a beer bottle – because he was using everything in the house against me,” Makumbene said.

Her then 3-year-old daughter witnessed the abuse, she said. “My little girl, she doesn’t forget what happened that day. She always speaks of it. She speaks of how daddy hit mommy. How daddy took mommy’s teeth out,” Makumbene said.

Once an aspiring model, Makumbene said her partner intentionally knocked her bottom teeth out to control and prevent her from fulfilling that dream. Makumbene said that he told her, “You’re a mother now, you mustn’t be interested in modeling. How can you compete with young girls in their 20s when you’re 28? You’re too old.”

Makumbene escaped with her daughter and went to her sister’s for help; only to be forced to return home. “You don’t run away from a man just because he’s hitting you, only if he cheats on you,” she confessed.

Makumbene shared how she experienced physical, emotional, and sexual abuse throughout her life. “I’m a person who’s full of anger. So, imagine how my child at the age of 4, will feel when she’s my age,” Makumbene said.

The trauma of abuse is impacting Makumbene’s daughter. “Whenever I start maybe saying something like, ‘Don’t do that,’ she says, ‘I will call daddy and he will kill you.’ She now knows those words. She understands that daddy is a powerful man and daddy can kill,” Makumbene said.

The abuse ended on Feb. 11, 2019 when Makumbene escaped with her daughter. “He started drinking again and I ran away. I was walking in the rain with my 4-year-old daughter and she had the flu. I didn’t know where I was going. I was so angry,” she said.

But for the persistence of a stranger, Makumbene, most likely wouldn’t have found refuge at Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development. The non-profit provides safe and secure accommodations and counseling to women whose lives have been endangered by domestic violence. And it’s the place where Makumbene and I met.

Mashudhu Makumbene at Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development, in Lenasia, South Africa on Feb. 15, 2019. Photo by Kail Cohen.

She was emotional and disoriented from the deluge of rain, when a man stopped his vehicle and offered to help. “I tried to fight him – thinking, no, this guy maybe wants to sleep with me,” Makumbene said.

The stranger’s offer was a painful trigger for Makumbene, who said she was raped in 2016, while walking with her baby who was just 12 months old at the time. Of the past incident, she explained: “This man offered to help me. He was old enough to be my father. His intention was actually to sleep with my daughter. But I had to cry and beg him not to. And I availed myself to him.”

Click HERE to listen to Mashudhu Makumbene.

The stranger who stopped Makumbene this time was different. “He begged and pleaded with me saying, ‘Please my sister. It’s raining. If not for you, let’s do it for the child. Please come in the car.’” Makumbene wasn’t convinced she could trust him. “He managed to grab ahold of me and began, saying, ‘I do not want to do anything. How can you be in the rain with a child now with this lightning and everything?’”

Reluctantly, Makumbene agreed to get in his vehicle. The man immediately turned on the heater and asked what was happening. “I told him that I am running away from my husband and told him about my situation,” said Makumbene. The man reached around his backseat, grabbing a couple jackets for Makumbene and her daughter. “Lucky enough, the guy who helped me, his sister is a social worker. He Googled the nearest place where I can get help. And that’s how I got to Nisaa,” Makumbene said.

Finding Help Leads to Hope

Dr. Zubeda Dangor is the executive director of Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development. The South African native co-founded and launched Nisaa in 1994. Her organization has since expanded from a single shelter for women into a national NGO that’s provided counseling for over 60,000 women fleeing abuse. On average, women and their children receive accommodations at the shelter for 3 to 6 months. However, under extenuating circumstances women are permitted to stay longer.

Additionally, Nisaa provides training for social workers, police, and judges – to ensure they’re properly equipped to assist victims of gender-based violence (GBV). Dr. Dangor is also the executive director of the National Shelter Movement of South Africa.

Dangor’s been fighting gender-based violence in South Africa for over two decades. “Women are tired of living that kind of violent life. If they’re given an opportunity – all we do is serve as the catalysts – the women do the work themselves,” the director said. “You very quickly see how they try to turn things around for themselves and their children.” Since opening its doors 26 years ago, Nisaa has never turned anyone away.

Dr. Dangor is also a clinical psychologist. After receiving her medical training, she realized very little was being done to help abused women in South Africa, in terms of mental health. “I found that more and more women were presenting as depressed and being given anti-depressants. I started thinking to myself what is this? As I started unpacking the issues, I found the underlying factor was abuse, a lot of abuse,” Dr. Dangor said.

Click HERE to Hear About Nisaa from Dr. Dangor.

#TotalShutdown – South Africa’s #MeToo Movement

Born and raised in South Africa, Dr. Dangor said, “Our history has a lot to do with gender-based violence. Starting from colonialism and continuing with apartheid. Men were not given an opportunity to express themselves so they were demasculinized.” Dr. Danger elaborated by saying that men sometimes found a source of power by beating up their wives at home. “I think that kind of explanation still exists today. Not everybody might see it that way. But I think it is a huge component of why we are the kind of society that we are,” Dr. Dangor said.

Large-scale movements such as #MeToo and #TotalShutdown have helped generate greater awareness about sexual abuse and GBV in the two decades since apartheid ended. Dr. Dangor said, “I think that up until now, there hasn’t been sufficient political will from the top down, and I mean from the government. When President Zuma was in place, we received very little help. But now with President Ramaphosa, as a result of #TotalShutdown and the clamoring that is happening by civil society — things are beginning to change.”

South Africa’s version of the #MeToo Movement took form as #TotalShutdown. On Aug. 1, 2018, women and gender non-conforming people across the country marched in protest against gender-based violence and femicide in South Africa.

Dr. Dangor has partnered with leaders from #MeToo and #TotalShutdown to help expand the conversation about gender-based violence. “It forced people to come together,” Dr. Dangor said.

Attorney Bonita Meyersfeld is the founding member of Lawyers Against Abuse, and associate professor of law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “The #MeToo Movement is the best thing to happen in my career,” she said. “You see women fiercely committed to the solidarity. It’s about the most important global movement that’s ever happened outside of women getting the vote. It’s more effective than any law, any politics, it’s a true movement and we haven’t had true movement in issues of gender in decades.”

In South Africa, less than 6 percent of reported rapes result in conviction, according to the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, the oldest human rights organization in South Africa.

While representing her clients, Meyersfeld witnessed how discrimination based on poverty becomes another obstacle for women being able to litigate their rape and abuse cases. “Judges frown upon women in South Africa who enter their courtrooms who aren’t properly groomed or essentially without access to a professional wardrobe,” Meyersfeld said.

This was the case for Jeminah Chabalala, another client I met at Nisaa. The then 24-year-old came to the organization with just the clothes on her back. Chabalala’s partner repeatedly threatened to kill their two small children.

Chabalala said, “I woke up in the bed. He took the baby with one hand and pulled her up while raising a machete. He said, ‘I will take off her head so that we can chop her into pieces.’ That’s when I knew there is no more life for me here.”

The experience traumatized Chabalala. However, she expressed her peace of mind knowing that she and her daughters were finally safe at Nisaa.

Research indicates that gender-based violence is complex and has many reasons that perpetuate its existence. There’s a complicated intersection between hegemonic masculinities, gender inequalities and cultural ideologies of what it means to be a “man.” Combined, these factors normalize and effectively legitimize violence against all women everywhere.

Access to critical resources, particularly psychosocial services enable women to heal and thrive following gender-based violence anywhere in the world. A woman’s overall health after sustaining trauma can be sufficiently predicted by whether or not she’s precluded from receiving critically needed support.

Reasons for Hope

During our interview in 2019, Dr. Dangor expressed hope regarding greater supportive services in the future, saying the government is taking the movement more seriously. “But the question is – how much money will be allocated to the sector?”

Even with recent measures taken to strengthen protection for women’s rights in South Africa, Dr. Dangor’s work underscores the prevalence of GBV and that it’s an endemic. Despite the monetary challenges she faces in providing assistance to so many in need, helping women rebuild their lives is according to Dr. Dangor, her life’s mission and ultimate purpose.

The South Africa Domestic Violence Act of 1998 created provisions for women to get protective orders against abusers, with the law calling domestic violence “a serious social evil” and acknowledging that “the remedies currently available to the victims in South Africa have proved to be ineffective.” Dr. Dangor described the legislature as progress.

Clients at Nisaa express having renewed hope and a sense of purpose. “Nisaa is number one. Go ask, ask everyone about Nisaa. You will get help and you will heal. Because I think now that I am healing. Even though I am not fine, I see the way for it,” Chabalala said.

Click HERE to listen to Jeminah Chabalala.

Dangor works six days a week and is energized by helping women and their children. “For me, more than the money that we don’t have, these are the most satisfying moments of our lives,” she said. “What you see when the women have gone and they’ve started to make a success of their own lives — that’s really, truly inspiring.”

Click HERE to Hear More from Dr. Dangor.


On Oct. 8, 2020, I Zoomed with Batsirai Bakare, Sheltering & Counseling Coordinator at Nisaa. Last year, during our face-to-face meeting, we discussed how traumatized both Mashudhu and Chabalala were. Bakare even had Chabalala’s daughter on her hip during our interview so that the baby’s mother could attend computer class.

Bakare, joined Nisaa in 2014 and shared that the organization has been inundated with calls since the country entered a mandatory COVID-19 lockdown. “At first when the pandemic started, the number of people who came to the shelter was less. However, the number of calls increased more than Nisaa has ever seen,” Bakare informed me.

“We have to protect the ladies and staff already at the shelter, meaning that any new client coming in has to be tested before we can move them into the house,” she said, noting that the Solidarity Fund helps pay for the testing and PPEs.

The organization created an isolation room outside, equipped with a bedroom, toilet, and shower. “The housemother brings the new clients food until such a time that we get results,” Bakare explained.

There were so many more questions to ask Bakare about Nisaa and the importance of shelters for GBV survivors during this global pandemic. But first, I had to ask about Mashudhu and Chabalala.

Bakare told me that Mashudhu stayed at Nisaa for a month in 2019 before going to live with relatives and later returned to Nisaa for a month during the summer of 2019.

I asked Bakare if she was worried about Mashudhu – because I certainly was. “The number she left is going to voicemail. So, we’re not sure if she changed her number. Most clients change their numbers if they don’t want contact with exes,” Bakare said. “We have cases where clients change numbers and then eventually come to us when they experience abuse again.”

Chabalala on the other hand, stayed at Nisaa with her daughters for a year, Bakare shared, and she’s now doing extremely well. Bakare recently saw Chabalala and said that she’s thriving. Chabalala, now lives in Pretoria with her aunt and two daughters. “She’s working and she looks happy. She’s at peace. And she’s not going back to her husband,” Bakare proudly shared.

Due to the non-profit’s partnership with Fasken law firm in Johannesburg, Chabalala is receiving pro bono legal services and is finalizing her divorce.

Bakare said it’s critical that gender-based violence be discussed more, especially during this global pandemic. And she wants people to recognize the distinct cycles of abuse in order to understand why women stay in abusive relationships. Women stay and don’t leave their abusers because of a lack of finances and because their partner plays with their emotions. That vicious cycle starts again and again, Bakare noted, and is worsened because of the economic and emotional effects of the pandemic. “When clients come to Nisaa, they’re starved, they’re stressed – you can see it on their faces – and they’re always crying,” Bakare said.

However, the client transformations are even more remarkable. “Because of our services, some women start getting better. There’s no more gloomy faces and some even gain weight. When their partners see that change — it restarts the ‘Honeymoon Stage’ of abuse – where he’s complimenting the woman and expressing his grief, ‘Baby, I’m so sorry,’” Bakare shared.

It’s only been 26 years since apartheid ended in South Africa. And as Dr. Dangor shared, the legacy of sanctioned racial segregation and discrimination – partially explains why South Africa has the world’s highest rate of femicide. 

I asked Bakare what’ll it take to eradicate gender-based violence in her lifetime. “We are far from the situation of gender-based violence getting better. And I think it all dwells with culture from patriarchy.” When a man pays lobolo, or bride price, for a wife, he thinks he has “a right to do whatever he wants to the woman because he paid for her,” Bakare said.

“Even though we have a Domestic Violence Act, and we know what is supposed to happen, for some reason when it comes to implementation we fail.”

Bakare’s infinite willingness to help survivors stems from her disdain for the country’s unbalanced justice system. “The problem that I have is that when they (GBV survivors) go to finalize their protective orders, the woman is cross-examined and the magistrate then determines who is telling the truth and who is lying,” said Bakare, her tone equal parts anger and impassioned empathy. “But when it comes to verbal and emotional abuse, it’s his word against hers. So why not just give a protection order just in case?”

Three days after our Zoom call, Bakare — whose first name “Batsirai” translates to help in Shona, the primary language spoken in Zimbabwe — advised that she’s currently self-quarantining because someone at Nisaa tested positive for COVID-19.

But she will return to work as soon as she can, and won’t stop until gender-based violence is non-existent — until women no longer have to convince magistrates of their emotional and verbal abuse and until their testimonies are believed as much as the photographs of their battered and bruised bodies.

Featured Image: Dr. Zuebda Dango at Nisaa Lenasia, South Africa. Nisaa also has offices in Soweto and Orange Farm. [Nisaa means woman in Arabic]. Photo by Kail Cohen.