Taking back the power and finding strength | #HelpingHandsSGBV

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Our #HelpingHandsSGBV campaign looks at how SGBV in South Africa affects children and adults from other countries. For non-South Africans, there can be extra barriers to reporting SGBV – but there are similarities in their experiences too. #HelpingHandsSGBV aims to provide information on how to better understand, report and get help on issues of SGBV in South Africa. 

Although Mawuwa’s* story is one of abuse starting in her home country of Burundi, it is also a story of strength. She has never given up on fighting for herself and her children to have a better life.  

Difficult Journeys 

In the beginning it was difficult for me to speak up – it was really difficult.” Living very much in isolation in South Africa, not being able to speak English well and having only the father of her children for support – Mawuwa found herself unable to leave her abusive household. Noticing the bruises, a teacher at her daughter’s school began a conversation with Mawuwa around the safety of her and her children. “The teacher asked me if I want to stay – I said I don’t know where to go. I have no family. If I had somewhere to go, I would leave him.”  

Ending up in hospital and having her children taken into care was the end of the line for Mawuwa and the father of her children. She did not want to return to the house for fear of her life. “I made the decision not to go back.” This was the point where she decided that she was going to fight for herself and fight to get her children back.  

Mawuwa has faced barriers that are common for many people affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), but specifically for people who are not originally from South Africa. Her documentation was used as leverage by her partner and her lack of English meant that her support was very small if it existed at all.  

Gaining strength and finding help 

After Mawuwa was discharged from hospital, she began approaching different organisations for assistance, finding bits of help from each organisationShe travelled around Cape Town determined to seek out support and assistance. Mawuwa was reunited with her children from whom she had been separated during her discharge from hospital. 

Mawuwa accessed counseling services as well as legal services to help move forward in all spheres of life. Although some organisations were not able to help, her case is currently with lawyers who are helping her and her children specifically with their documentation.  

Her advice to someone living in a similar situation is to reach out to organisationsThere are different services that can be accessed and different forms of help available.  You can visit the Scalabrini website to find organisations dealing with SGBV.  

Dreaming of a better future  

Mawuwa hopes for a life where her and her children can live with freedom from fear. Being able to have the correct documentation would allow Mawuwa and her family to access the rights that they have been fighting for over the last few years. Mawuwa dreams of her children having access to opportunities that she did not have; she wants them to be able to pursue their dreams and to live a life of peace.  

*Names and places have been changed  

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From silence to empowerment with Adonis Musati | #HelpingHandsSGBV

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As the manager of the counseling centre and Women’s Empowerment Programme at Adonis Musati Project, Sylvie Mbebe has been the first point of contact for many people affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The Women’s Empowerment Programme focuses on reasons abuse could happen, facing abuse in a country that is not your home and how to move from being a victim to seeking help and even becoming an advocate against SGBV. 

Sylive has been part of people’s journey towards self-empowerment and the realisation of their dreams. In some cases, Sylvie's clients have gone on to speak out publicly against SGBV and advocating on others' behalf.  

Similarities and differences 

Working so closely with SGBV survivors, Sylvie sees many similarities faced by South Africans and people originally from other countries. “South African’s and migrants go through the same patterns of abuse and they suffer the same consequences of abuse.”  

Because of her line of work, she is also aware of the specific barriers faced by people who are not originally from South Africa. “I think there is a difference in terms of voicing what is happening. SGBV is more taboo in these (migrant and refugee) communities, where South Africans are more open to talking about it. That is the difference that I have seen.” 

Sylvie sees helplessness and fear as the major factors around preventing people from getting support or reporting the violence. She finds that, for many SGBV survivors, living in a foreign country adds to a sense of helplessness. With smaller social networks around them, these survivors often rely on the perpetrators themselves for support – especially in cases of intimate partner violence. Speaking up about this violence or reporting it can seem impossible 

“Most of the time they tell me that they’ve never told anyone about it.” 

Barriers to talking and reporting 

When discussing barriers to talking about and reporting SGBV, Sylvie noticed some common themes. One is the need for acceptance and saving face. There is a fear of what the community will say as well as what their family will say. “If a victim has to make the community aware of what she’s going through, she fears stigma from the community. They are told that every couple has their issues and these issues need to be discussed behind closed doors. They are told that speaking about this makes you less of a woman. Many people also feel ashamed by the thought of their story being passed around the community and forming some type of ‘gossip’.  

A second barrier to reporting SGBV is dependency. “Many of the people affected by SGBV are unemployed, or illiterate, undocumented, or have no family here to back them up. They think ‘if I have to talk and this man kicks me out of the house, where will I go?’ Where shall I go with my children? Who will provide for my children? It’s financial dependency and lack of knowledge in terms of rights. 

Many of Sylvie’s clients have been let down by South African services such as the police and the court system. As a result, many people feel that reporting will not lead to a solution and may even aggravate the situation. 

Sylvie speaks of these being the common barriers, but that there are also very specific cultural reasons for each person not wanting to speak up. For example, in some people’s culture “it is a curse to marry a woman that has been abused.” This alone provides a specific reason why some of Sylvie’s clients have difficulties in addressing or leaving an abusive situation.  

Nevertheless, times are slowly changing. Thoughts are progressing, bolstered by people who have gained the courage to speak. Sylvie considers education as the vital key. If you know your rights you can start to really address SGBV. There are also small steps that people can take to broaden their social networks; like joining English classes, skills training programmes and community groups.  

Taking back the power 

The Adonis Musati Project runs peer counselling sessions. During these sessions, Sylvie noticed that people did not feel comfortable speaking about their experiences of SGBV. Their fear of stigma is still there. This birthed the Women’s Empowerment Programme. Here, a space was created for people to really express themselves, for their emotions to unfold and for their minds to reflect. “These women could really start to understand that they did not deserve the abuse. The programme is to help people realise that abuse is not normal. We also teach about rights, we inform them about resources they can access, and we speak about documentation, because documentation is also a factor that limits victims to report – the perpetrator also uses that to maintain the abuse.” 

“We advocate that women take the lead in their lives. When they are in the position of a victim, they feel like there is nothing for them and their dreams have been shattered. In our programmes we teach them to reflect on something that they still have, something that is positive – that can be a source for motivation for success. And I have seen women striving.” Sylvie has seen a woman with five children go back to school and another woman who has gone to nursing school and become a motivational speaker. “Knowledge is very important and there is no limit to education. Even if you come from far there is a future. Where there is life there is hope. Out of the broken pieces, you can use those broken pieces and make something beautiful out of it, if you believe. 


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The Building Blocks to Empowerment | #HelpingHandsSGBV

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Getting to know ourselves 

“I would describe Women’s Platform as a space where women learn about who they are and try to grow from there. I would say it is a family, a home. I would also explain it as a journey.”  

Shingi West is the Women’s Platform Personal Development (PD) Manager – “Personal Development is actually the heart of Women’s Platform. It is where the women realise who they are and what they want out of life.”  

Working with both South African women and women originally from other countries, personal development courses focus on growth, empowerment and identity. “They [the women] learn about their different emotions and the importance of self-care – it’s very difficult for people to express themselves and understand how they feel or what they really want. We believe that once you understand how you feel in terms of emotions you are able to help yourself from there.” 

Goals, action plans, mentorship and networking are a major focus within Women’s Platform. It is also a space where women are able to develop a sense of community and a feeling of safety – to the point that if they are suffering from sexual or gender-based violence (SGBV), this is a space where they can ask for help or develop their thoughts and plans around their next move. 

Barriers to Reporting 

Shingi is aware of many reasons that people would not want to report their abuse. “I think it’s the way our society is shaped, the cultural norms, fear, secondary trauma and thinking about what people will say. Then there’s also financial implications, immigration status, isolation –imagine you are in a foreign country, you already don’t know people and now you are in this relationship that’s abusive. There are a lot of implications when it comes to leaving. That’s why I always feel that people who are in abusive relationships are strong to stay in those relationships and they are also strong to leave those relationships. We cannot even begin to judge them its unfair.” 

As a person who is migrating or has migrated, one encounters several specific spaces where SGBV can occur. Each person’s journey is different. “If it is intimate partner violence (IPV), most of the time you find that it started well before they came to South Africa and maybe worsened because of the situation when they got here. For others, it could have started when they arrived here. The sad thing from the research we had was, usually the husband comes first and their wife and sometimes children make their way alone to join him. On that journey, there can be different forms of SGBV – from their relationships with their partner, to what they’re running away from, to being taken advantage of travelling and crossing borders because they have no money to pay their way, to getting to South Africa and still being vulnerable to the same situations.” 

Safe Spaces 

Within Women’s Platform, educating women on their rights is very important. Once conversations are opened up, women are able to learn from each other and more spaces are created for them to ask for and receive support. “Sometimes when you realise that there is a group of women that can support you, that have gone through some of these things, that share the same language, that are from the same country, it gives you a bit more confidence to move to the next step.”  

What if someone confides in you that they are facing SGBV? Shingi would not recommend forcing anyone to go to the police and report, it’s about the person realising where they are and where they want to go. Encouraging them to join support groups, to receive counseling to better understand their situation and to understand that none of it is their fault is key. Once they are empowered, once they have enough information to make a sound decision, then they can move forward from there.” Shingi emphasises the need to build trust so that when the person is ready to ask for support or is ready to leave the relationship, they know that you are there to support them. 

Once women complete the personal development courses, they can go on to the skills sector. This empowers them to become financially independent. “They can take baby steps until they reach that space of freedom.” 

“I always say, all women are resilient. We go through so many different things. Resilience is shown in subtle changes – where women want to be more empowered, where they want to be leaders in their communities, where they want to stand up for things that they never used to stand up for. Because you’re a woman you have the power to grow from where you are.” 


#HelpingHandsSGBV Information, Resources and Organisations

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Our #HelpingHandsSGBV campaign looks at how Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) in South Africa affects children and adults from other countries. For non-South Africans, there can be extra barriers to reporting SGBV – but there are similarities in their experiences too. #HelpingHandsSGBV aims to provide information on how to better understand, report and get help on issues of SGBV in South Africa. 

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Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is violence directed at an individual based on their sex or gender. SGBV may take many forms including physical, sexual, emotional and economic violence. While all genders may be affected by SGBV, the majority of victims and survivors are women and girls.

It’s often reported that South Africa has some of the highest SGBV rates in the world. Further, research indicates that as few as 1/13 rapes are reported to the police and many incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV) may be recorded as assault.

It is difficult to provide accurate data for how many migrant women and children are affected by SGBV. There are many barriers that those trying to report SGBV and IPV have highlighted when trying to access services. Barriers to reporting of SGBV and IPV by migrant women and children include lack of proper documentation, language barriers, or xenophobia.

Child asylum seekers and refugees may be especially vulnerable to SGBV during migration, particularly unaccompanied or separated migrant children, according to the UNHCR. Detained children, child soldiers, children with disabilities, working children, and children born to rape victims and survivors are all at a heightened risk of SGBV during the migration process. SGBV against boys is also under-reported and under acknowledged.

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This is a list of some organisations in South Africa that can support people affected by SGBV.

The Fruit Basket

Members of LGBTQI+ communities may be at a higher risk of experiencing SGBV if they are seen as failing to conform to prescribed gender expectations and roles or as a result of homophobia and/or transphobia. LGBTQI+ children and youth may be particularly vulnerable if they are also lacking family and community support or protection.

The Fruit Basket offers referral services for LGBTQI+ migrants of any age, including legal and counseling referrals.

You can contact them via email info@thefruitbasket.co.za or find them on Instagram or Facebook. Their offices are closed due to Covid-19, but their programmes are running remotely.


Childline has a toll-free telephone counseling line. This helpline is free from any network and operates 24/7. This helpline is for children and for adults with concerns about children. You can call this number in an emergency situation or it allows children to talk about their concerns and issues that directly affect them. Childline provides counselling to their callers and in an emergency situation they can refer you to a social worker ( Department of Social Development/ Child Welfare).

If you need to contact the toll free helpline the number is 08 000 55 555 or access their website here for more information.

Thuthuzela Care Centres

Thuthuzela Care Centre is a one stop facility that has been introduced as a critical part of South Africa’s anti-rape strategy. Thuthuzela’s integrated approach to rape care is one of respect, comfort, restoring dignity and ensuring justice for children, women and men who are victims of sexual violence. When reporting, the rape victim is removed from crowds and intimidating environments, such as at the police station, to a more victim-friendly environment before being transported by police to the Thuthuzela care centre at the hospital. Enroute, the survivor receives comfort and crisis counselling from a trained Counsellors. Read more about the Thuthuzela Care Centres and their locations here

Thuthuzela Care Centres in the Western Cape:

    • Karl Bremer Hospital: 021 918 1321
    • Heideveld Day Hospital: 021 699 3246
    • Victoria Hospital forensic unit: 021 799 1111/1235
    • Khayelitsha District Hospital: 021 360 4570

Rape Crisis

Rape Crisis offer support to people who have experienced or been affected by sexual violence. You can call their 24-hour helpline on 021 447 9762.

Rape Crisis have also published a useful guide to knowing your rights and services if you have experienced sexual violence.

Adonis Musati

Adonis Must offers peer support programs, counseling and social services. Services are in English, with translations available for French, Swahili, Lingala, Kirundi, Shona, and Chichewa

Contact them on admin@adonismusati.com or visit  www.adonismusatiproject.org.

The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

The Scalabrini Centre offers welfare support, counselling and legal advice. The Women’s Platform at Scalabrini has a Personal Development course as well as skills training.

Send us an email at info@scalabrini.org.za or message us on Instagram or Facebook.

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A painting you cannot imagine: Learning and growing from a difficult marriage | #HelpingHandsSGBV

Our #HelpingHandsSGBV campaign looks at how SGBV in South Africa affects children and adults from other countries. For non-South Africans, there can be extra barriers to reporting SGBV – but there are similarities in their experiences too. #HelpingHandsSGBV aims to provide information on how to better understand, report and get help on issues of SGBV in South Africa.

Maria* says that, a few months ago, this interview would never have happened. Not too long ago, she felt that she was not able to speak to anyone about the abuse that she was facing in her own home. Speaking about this abuse and reaching out has encouraged her journey to healing. Maria hopes that her experiences can now offer hope and strength to people in a similar situation.

Ideas of marriage and family

“When I got married, I had no experience. You get a basic education of marriage, but it was just that.” Maria grew up with both of her parents, in a family where arguments between her parents never took place in front of the children. Growing up, divorce was something that she did not even know was an option.

Her husband’s childhood was quite different. His mother was young and unprepared to have a child, and he spent much of his childhood moving from household to household. Whilst this kind of childhood is not uncommon, Maria found that it affected her husband throughout his adult life.”

Maria and her husband got married in 2012 and she fell pregnant with their daughter very soon after. “When you get married you hear all these nice stories. People paint a beautiful picture of marriage and then you go in there and these things can start happening. It’s like something you’ve never even thought in your head.”

In their first year of marriage, Maria’s husband lost his job and couldn’t find employment for the following three years. “There was the problem of not having the money and not feeling ‘man’ enough. We accumulated so much debt…It would start as an argument and then my husband would end up slapping me. I didn’t allow it to happen, I would fight back – and that’s when it would get worse because it’s like two men fighting. It really came as a shock for me.”

Family involvement

While this physical abuse was happening, Maria felt like she was unable to tell anyone about it. She could not tell her family living in Johannesburg and she would hide the bruises when she went to work. “You feel ashamed that it’s happening. You feel sorry for yourself and you don’t feel like going through the process again, by telling someone. Also, one of the reasons is because you love your partner…it’s a very difficult situation.”

Maria’s colleague was the person to reach out to her family to inform them that something was going on. “They (my family) confronted the situation; they confronted my husband and then we had to sit down and everybody explained it to be new couples and that it takes time to harmonise.” Maria was told that as a woman you need to respect a man and understand how to live with them.

Quieter times

After their families got involved, it was a quieter time. Maria* speaks of the quieter times in the marriage where there was no violence. Once they spoke to their families, they began working on resolving things.

After their son was born the violence started up again – leading to her father having to come rescue them. They kept trying to make it work, specifically for the children – and for a year it did.

“The last instance was the worst one. I didn’t realise what was happening. I tried to reach out to my phone and I phoned my cousin and asked her to come and fetch me. I did not look at my face. When my cousin arrived, she was devastated. She just started crying and I didn’t really understand why. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was swollen all over – he was beating me on my head and on my ear – I was swollen all over on the face, I had some blood and scratches. They took me to hospital and luckily, I didn’t have anything broken.” Maria and her children moved to Pretoria to live with her mom.


“At the time my children were very small, but they saw.” Maria says her daughter remembers things. For example, her daughter was 6 years old when her husband took a chair to a door to get into the room she had locked herself in. Although her children did not see what was happening inside the room, they heard their mom screaming for the neighbours to call the police.

“They (my children) felt what was happening. When we were at my mom’s place, it was difficult. They love their dad and it was difficult for them to be separated. He (my son) wanted me to explain why I wasn’t with his dad anymore. I can’t say that they understand what happened, but subconsciously they have some scars as well.”


After a few months, Maria’s husband’s family came to negotiate. As a means of survival and for the sake of her children she decided to give it one last try. “It’s been two years now that we’re back together, so we’ve learnt to deal with things in a very different way and I’m really hoping that it stays like that.  At first, I was very fearful – having that gap and then it happens again, you never know if it stopped or if it’s still going to happen. But I told myself I can’t live in fear – if I’m going to be in it then I have to take responsibility for watching out for the things that are happening so it doesn’t happen again.


Speaking to people about what has happened has given Maria the space to begin her healing. She stresses that anyone living in a similar situation needs to reach out and talk to people.  “We have to put all the shame aside and reach out.” Speaking to people is what gave Maria the strength to stand her ground and say ‘no more! I’m not going to allow this behaviour anymore because I don’t deserve that’. Acknowledging that not knowing the outcome is frightening ‘but at least it’s easier than living through the (abusive) situation.’