Abused South African women log on for online lifeline

With real world support lacking, South Africa's abused seek help online in a country where violence against women is endemic. — Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

JOHANNESBURG: Every day, Sabrina Walter answers 50 to 150 messages on her social media channels from South African women who have survived abuse but need help to get justice, get safe or get back on their feet. With little support in real life, they have turned to the virtual world.

Walter is the founder of non-profit Women For Change (WFC), which has grown from having a few hundred followers online when it was created in 2016 to reaching over 10 million people per month across its Facebook, X, TikTok and Instagram pages in 2023.

The need for support is clear in a country where violence against women is profound and widespread, and impunity for perpetrators is common, women’s rights experts say.

Re-victimisation at the hands of police as well as the estimated two year-backlog of forensic DNA analysis needed for evidence means victims can wait years for justice, said Amanda Gouws, professor of political science at the University of Stellenbosch.

WFC educates, advocates, and campaigns on gender-based violence (GBV), femicide, human rights and gender equality.

“I think (violence against women) is an ongoing war; it’s a pandemic,” said Walter.

WFC also helps victims and their families access social and legal assistance as well as putting people in touch with counsellors and other experts who can advise them on their personal cases.

“People do not have assistance, they don’t know where to go and do not have a lot of resources,” said Walter, who has built up a database of vetted lawyers, investigators, partner organisations and social workers.

She has seen the impact offline too; WFC has mobilised thousands of people to fundraise and hundreds of women have got legal and social support through the online community.

WFC is not the only charity that has seen demand for its online support soar. Half a dozen social media pages across various platforms have seen their monthly audience grow to number in the millions over the past decade, said women's rights advocates.

Lusyomo-Namakau Simatele, a social justice educator who helps run Girls Against Oppression (GAO), another online platform with more than 100,000 followers, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the online support was filling a real world gap.

GAO receives around 100 messages each week across its social media platforms from people needing help.

“We really had no other choice but to step in as normal civilians ... and use social media to be a connector between individuals and resources,” Simatele said.

“The system is broken, and we have had to build our own one online.”

Endemic problem

Violence against women is a shockingly common and brutal characteristic of a country with a history of wider violence and profound inequality.

In 2019/20, about 2,700 women were murdered in South Africa, meaning a woman was murdered every three hours, according to the Africa Health Organisation (AHO).

South Africa also has one of the highest rape statistics in the world, even higher than some countries at war.

There were nearly 42,000 reported cases of rape in 2021/22 – up 15% from 2020/21, which amounts to over 115 rapes a day, according to police statistics.

But even those figures may be an underestimation. Social justice activists note that women often do not report cases for fear their allegations might be dismissed, or because they worry the accused might be swiftly freed and seek revenge.

“A large percentage of cases ‘fall out’ of the criminal justice chain (a phenomenon known as attrition) at the police reporting stage as victims are discouraged by police maltreatment,” said Nyasha Karimakwenda, a gender equity consultant.

Maltreatment can include police forcing survivors to recount their trauma in public and questioning whether intimate partners can actually be accused of rape, said Karimakwenda in emailed comments.

Despite progressive legislation, a violent past and high levels of poverty and inequality may partially explain why violence against women is so prevalent in South Africa, said Gouws from Stellenbosch, although she added that it is difficult to pinpoint exact reasons.

Education around violence and better policing are some of the more immediate ways GBV can be tackled, said Karimakwenda.

“We need to shift mindsets at individual, interpersonal and communal levels – to engage both women and men about gender discriminatory beliefs and actions and to illustrate how destructive this is,” said Karimakwenda.

In the absence of more formal interventions, the online activists have stepped into the breach.

“I should not have to do Instagram threads to inform men that it’s not OK to kill women, but I do it consistently,” said Simatele.

Digital divide

But digital support is not always the answer.

Bernadine Bachar, director for the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children, said that while social media channels provide “accessibility, ease of use (and) a central space for all information that a survivor may need”, they are not a silver bullet.

“Not all survivors of (abuse) will have (online) access. They may not have data or a smartphone. Also, individually tailored assistance may not always be possible,” she said in emailed comments.

Another complication is that the very online platforms that women turn to for support can be used against them.

Walter said she is sometimes blocked by social media platforms when algorithms mistake her exposure of abuse for promotion.

She would like to create her own free platform to help her engage safely with survivors using her own interface. She is seeking funding to help her make this a reality.

Bachar said a collaborative approach between social media pages, shelters, counsellors and legal assistance was “critical” to curbing gender-based violence.

Until institutional gaps are filled, activists like Simatele will continue the fight online.

“It’s exhausting, it’s triggering, it’s heartbreaking, it’s angering,” she said. “But it has to be done.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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