Domestic Violence: A Larger Context

South Africa has one of the highest national rates for domestic violence in the world. One in every six women is assaulted by her partner (Preller, 2014), while  an estimated 40% of South African men have hit their partners (SACAP, 2013). One of the most common forms of domestic abuse is sexual assault. One in four men in South Africa have raped a women with an estimated 98% of rape related domestic violence cases going unreported to police. About 46% of reported cases include children as victims of physical or sexual violence (Preller, 2014).

Statistics slide

Statistics on domestic violence for South Africa. Numbers obtained from the South African College of Applied Psychology (2013) and Bertus Preller (2014).

In order to combat these shocking statistics, many non-profit organizations in South Africa, and around the world, have built safe houses. A safe house is a shelter where women and children who are suffering abuse can go for security and therapy until they can find a new, safe place to live.

Although the goal of a safe house is to empower and heal domestic violence survivors, it can sometimes be a stressful environment. Each resident is going through her own process of recovery thus it is important that a safe house be a place for survivors to feel secure, comfortable, and connected to their community.

Throughout the research process prior to working at the Sizakuyenza Safe House, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) team was able to learn about the needs and goals of recovery at a safe house from many external resources. The team noticed several trends in their research that guided them in choosing their project goals:

A Place to Feel Safe and Empowered— As the prevalence of shelters for battered women rises, so does interest in the intricacy and efficiency of programs. In the past ten years, psychologists conducted numerous studies, both small and large scale, to gather feedback from survivors. One particular study from 2013 asked women what was the best mode of contact with counselors during recovery (Gilroy, McFarlane, Nava, & Maddoux, 2013). In a sample of 300, the survivors overwhelmingly preferred face-to-face interaction. This is crucial because, even when allowed the anonymity of social media sites and convenience of phone, women appreciated direct contact in most situations indicating that the teams interactions with the women there should always be face to face.

Another recent study surveyed a smaller group of 18 women in Israel (Haj-Yahia & Cohen, 2008). In these interviews, the researchers asked the following questions based on two major topics:

  • Her experience living at the shelter
    •  How she found out about the shelter
    • What her first steps at the shelter were
    • Her observations on staying at the shelter
    • What she expected from the shelter
    • What she took away from the shelter
    • What she felt she did not get from the shelter
  • The shelters ability to address violence directed at her
    • What may have changed in her life after her stay
    • If the shelter met expectations
    • Recommendations for the staff to improve
    • Advice to other women (Haj-Yahia & Cohen, 2008)

The study concluded that there are a variety of considerations for Safe Houses to think about when accommodating their residents. Survivors associate their safe houses with security and growth. Many women shared accounts of personal growth in relationship development and acceptance. While many women expressed a newly found freedom, one problem that seems to be consistent is that many women feel isolated or trapped by the demanding rules and restrictions of communication with the outside world. Thus the safe houses have to think about ways to prevent this feeling and any discomfort the women may be under in order to help them heal as quickly as possible. The researchers also had to take the survivors feelings into account and invite their participation in an inviting manner that did not provoke the latter reaction. Personal accounts from the study indicate the feeling of isolation or fear of confinement comes from a lack of understanding of the rules. The WPI Safe House team developed rules in the same way the house did in order to insure consistency and safety for the women, while allowing an extra line of communication. While this site is far from Cape Town, the connecting theme between safe houses is one of humankind, not of a particular place or race, and the study was very insightful

Haj-Yahia and Cohen also explored a general trend recovering women go through: drastic personal change while at the shelter. For the most part, this change results in strength, competency, and optimism. Programs should help solidify these feelings rather than challenge them.

The WPI team also noted that many survivors have strong relationships with one another. Some women use the term “family” to describe the closeness they feel with other survivors. This closeness stems from facing large obstacles together and learning to support one another through group therapy. Conversely, some other women feel as though abuse is the only thing that bonds them, and do not enjoy sharing the private restoration process with one another. Taking both emotional states into account is important when designing programs and facilities so as not to cause emotional damage to any resident.

It is important to note recovery is a fluid process. Each survivor has a different experience because there are numerous paths leading to recovery. The Safe House team should be aware each unique experience is laden with many different emotions and transitions. This sensitivity will establish the best mutual understanding between groups and develop the best outcome.

Comforting Interior Space— There is much to consider when designing the interior of a domestic violence shelter. Security is one of the most central aspects, but there are other important characteristics to keep in mind. Residents live at Sizakuyenza for up to six months, spending nearly all of their time within the safe house walls. Thus, maintaining a comfortable area is an important design factor to consider in safe house plans. Selecting and positioning specific interior décor can be extremely beneficial in promoting the women’s autonomy as well as providing a feeling of empowerment.

Building Dignity, a non-profit organization based in the Pacific Northwest, offers design strategies for safe houses, and provides many ideas catering to the specific needs and goals of each individual safe house (WSCADV, 2014). The organization gives insight into the many ways architecture and design can make residents feel secure, connected, and empowered. Sizakuyenza could implement some of these ideas in order to improve the lives and recovery of their residents. For example, having a garden or other relaxing outdoor space decreases survivors’ recovery time. It is important for the residents to have security and privacy so that they feel comfortable in the safe house space. The environment should be colorful as children are attracted to vibrant, eye-level embellishments, so these are good to integrate into a play-space. Although space for children is often a consideration, it is also important to consider having a space for teens to hang out. A “quiet space” outside of the residents’ rooms is often a favorite space for women and teens, where they feel they have privacy and peace. It is important to have many windows allowing natural light into the space, but also to have curtains or blinds so the residents feel they have control over the level of light and privacy they want. Kitchens should be prepared for multiple users, although it is ideal to have an individual cooking and dining space for each resident, or resident family (WSCADV, 2014).

Serene Outdoor Space— One  common frustration a safe house resident has is feeling trapped from being confined in the safe house for extended periods of time (Lygum, 2012). An outdoor space for both recreation and relaxation can alleviate the sense of confinement and give the women a place to get away.

There are many mental and physical repercussions of domestic violence including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, emotional distress and chronic pain. Thus, it is important to offer an accessible area for people in all situations. Victims of domestic violence who move into a safe house can often find close contact with a multitude of new people to be stressful. Thus, an area where they can get away can also be useful in the sense it puts space between them and their fellow residents (Lygum, 2012). Safe houses with outdoor environments have a multitude of potential health benefits including stress coping, improved attention, self-confidence, strengthened feelings of self and improved social competence (Lygum, 2012). Many studies affirm the benefits of gardens and gardening for both women and children who have suffered from domestic abuse (Lygum, 2012).

Lygum (2012), a researcher who conducted a study on the effect of environment on domestic violence victims, recommends outdoor environments at a safe house should include features such as small covered areas. These spaces create a sense of separation and peace without completely cutting women off from those around them. Proper lighting is also important so women can access areas at night if they need an escape from the crowded indoors (Lygum, 2012). An ideal outdoor environment protects the residents while providing both private areas and spaces for social interaction. It is important to consider allocation of space when dealing with a small plot of land. Landscaping should provide a snug feeling without making the women feel cramped or confined. Using shrubbery can help soften the hard appearance of any protective walls or barriers (Lygum, 2012). Security is important everywhere in the safe house, as there is a chance an abuser is looking for the residents and wishes to do them further harm. As a result, it will be important to maintain sight lines within the social and play area to encourage the feeling of safety for both the women and children. These sight lines, when coupled with lockable doors and a record of everyone coming and going from the premise will help to establish a strong, secure outdoor area (Lygum, 2012).

Early Childhood Development— The children living at safe houses are often victims of abuse and their recovery is just as important as that of the women. Attention to childhood development is one useful method of repairing the damage done by abuse. Many of the women who come to the safe house arrive with children who are also in a period of stress and transition. Schooling is an important way to retain structure and stability, particularly for young children. The children staying at Sizakuyenza are currently taxied to and from a crèche in Philippi, running the risk of being intercepted by their abusers. An on-site crèche is the most ideal situation, so that the children can continue their education without any compromise of their safety.

Research into playground design has been an evolving development worldwide. The American Academy of Pediatrics argues that play contributes to every aspect of childhood development and is something parents should encourage (Ginsburg, 2007). The playground structure in the Safe House allowed a well-planned design to maximize growth. Andy Low (2012), director of Reka Setia Playgrounds, claims flexibility is key to a successful recreation area. Tailoring a playground to a specific age group is necessary to keep children active. When several age groups use the playground, it is important to keep them separate so one group does not dominate the shared space. Each area should be directed toward a specific age group to provide age appropriate stimulation and encourage decision-making, social interaction, or critical thinking. A decision can be as simple as which handle to grab, or as complex as an integrated and competitive game of tic-tac-toe. The handle would cater more toward younger children, while thought provoking games toward the older. Low (2012) found the desired playground changes from country to country in regards to materials, obstacles and even colors. This makes input from the users a vital process during design. It is important to consider all hazards and safety steps once all the wants have been assessed.

In order to prolong the life of a wooden structure, the American City & Council journal suggests periodic maintenance (McKenzie, 1996). Upon installation, the wood should be coated, or otherwise treated, in a way that will protect, but not damage the natural fibers. Instead of re-coating every year with a weather resistant paint, it is advised to use wood cleaner to prevent buildup of many layers of stain. Depending on the location and exposure to the sun, the wood will gray at different rates. It is recommended a wood cleaner be applied whenever the gray appears, which will likely be a yearly process. The American City & Council also suggests re-staining bi-annually, which creates a good balance of protection while still avoiding buildup.

Emotional Support— Especially in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence, it is essential for survivors to receive therapy and counseling as needed. Sizakuyenza offers a good support network for the women and children who stay at the safe house. There is a social worker on-site, as well as housemothers who provide constant care. In their research, the team found inspiration from some other safe houses in Cape Town.

The Saartje Baartmann Centre for Women and Children (SBCWC) is in Manenberg, a township in Cape Town. The SBCWC, established in 1999, was the first one-stop centre for women and children survivors of abuse in South Africa ( “Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children,” 2014). The shelter usually houses two dozen women and about thirty-five children for four months of recovery. While the organization has grown tremendously, the main resources of legal assistance, 24-hour crisis response, job-skills training, transitional shelter, and counselling remain at the core

The extensive recovery process is different for every patient, but counselling and empowerment are two common themes. The assistance consists of many resources including group and individual therapy, sexual assault therapy, as well as substance abuse education and rehabilitation. The SBCWC uses poetry, dance, and anonymous digital diaries to express their various stages of recovery. The clothesline project is an international campaign that even WPI participates in yearly. Each woman and child has the unique opportunity to tell their story using a t-shirt as their canvas. Survivors in the community, including those residing in the long-term facilities of SBCWC, decorate shirts as a symbol of turning away from the pain and joining a clothesline where they are far from alone.