Broken, cream-colored tiles form a mosaic of a woman’s face in the entrance hall of a South African shelter for abused women. Branches extending from her head are painted across the wall, decorated with colorful leaves.
“The face represents the broken women who arrive,” Saartjie Baartman Centre For Women and Children director Bernadine Bachar said. “The branches show the healing, growth and final empowerment they experience through the programs we offer.”
The center in Athlone, on the outskirts of Cape Town, is a 24-hour safe house for women and children who have been victims of abuse.
The shelter can take up to 120 women at a time with their children — and it is usually at full capacity.
South Africa has been hit by protests against femicide over the past few weeks after a series of murders that shocked the public.
Among them was a student from Cape Town who was raped and killed in a post office.
South African Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said that more than 30 women were killed by their spouses last month.
The hashtag #AmINext has been trending, with protesters demanding immediate action from the government.
Some of them have called for the return of the death penalty and for a state of emergency to be declared.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday announced an emergency plan to stop the resurgence in violence against women.
During an emergency sitting of the South African National Assembly, he said the nation was one of “the most unsafe places in the world to be a woman.”
The Western Cape Women’s Shelter Movement protested outside parliament during the talks, demanding it consider the significant role played by safe houses for women and children.
Bachar said that urgent action is needed.
“We’ve absolutely seen an increase in gender-based violence over the past three months,” she said. “Not only has the number of women [affected] increased, but they’re suffering from more intensive injuries than they used to before.”
The center is seeing a lot more burn victims, particularly from boiling water thrown at the face, and an increase in stab victims, Bachar said.
She blames this on a lack of government intervention, high levels of substance abuse and an unprecedented increase in the unemployment rate that has resulted in “a lack of power and control which drives gender-based violence.”
Bachar also accused the police of not taking the victims seriously and said they need to undergo special training to equip them with the necessary skills to deal with cases of sexist violence.
One abuse survivor, Rachel Petersen, recounted her bitter experience with the authorities.
“I went to the police, and I was dripping with blood, but they still wouldn’t help me. They said they don’t get involved in ‘house issues,’” Petersen said.
The 44-year-old, who was living and working at the center, blamed a lack of education and awareness for the problem.
“I was always taught by my grandmother that as a wife it is my job to be submissive. Before I came to this center I didn’t even know what abuse meant,” she said.
The center receives funding from the South African Department of Social Development — but Bachar said that only covers 40 percent of the annual cost of running the shelter.
She said that it needs a further 6 million rand (US$409,344), but raising that amount would be “impossible.”
“Increased funding would mean we could uniformly extend our services to more survivors,” she said.
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