Without documents, women at high risk of gender-based violence
UNHCR is advocating for women and girls in South Africa to acquire identity documents which can help reduce the risk of statelessness, and physical and psychological abuse.
Bonisiwe is plagued by a recurring nightmare about Sipho, a knife-wielding ex-partner who subjected her and their toddler to years of psychological and physical abuse. Twenty years have passed since the harrowing experience, but the memories are still fresh.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” whispers the 52-year-old as she recounts how Sipho would return home in a bad mood, finding fault in everything she did.
“He would slap me so hard it would send me reeling. Then he would punch me and throw me to the floor,” she adds.
The last time he attacked her, he drew out a knife. That was her cue to strap baby S’phamandla to her back and flee into the night.
They spent that night under a broken-down truck in a nearby scrapyard.
Bonisiwe has spent most of her adult life going from one abusive relationship to another – a vicious cycle she attributes to her lack of identity documents and the fact that she does not legally exist.
She was born to a sickly single mother in KwaMashu township, in Durban. Her mother did not register her birth and wasn’t able to put her through school.
“After two years in primary school I had to drop out so I could take care of my sick mother. We had nothing and relied on our neighbours,” she says.
“He would slap me so hard ...then he would punch me and throw me to the floor.”
At 17, she had her first abusive relationship with a 30-year-old man and had a son with him, Mthokozisi.
“He called me an illiterate fool and said that no man would want me because I was ugly, and he was doing me a favour,” she adds.
Her situation mirrors that of thousands of women in South Africa and around the world.
One in three women worldwide experience physical, psychological and sexual violence mostly inflicted by an intimate partner, according to UN Women. The situation is worse for undocumented women like Bonisiwe, as they are often reluctant to report abuse to law enforcement for fear of arrest, discrimination, and further ill-treatment. Without proof of identity which would confirm their nationality, they lack access to protection measures of the government where they live, and the legal recourse that someone with a national ID could avail themselves of.
In South Africa, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is strongly advocating for addressing the root causes of gender-based violence (GBV), with one of them being lack of documentation.
“Each cruel word, slap or punch is damaging, and the impact of lacking documentation is far-reaching,” says Laura Buffoni, UNHCR’s Senior Community-Based Protection Officer based in Pretoria.
Bonisiwe admits that she had no choice but to stay with her son’s abusive father as he was supporting them. She eventually left with then two-year-old Mthokozisi and moved to Pretoria to live with a cousin.
“I hoped to find opportunities for a better life and assumed I would have a better chance of obtaining legal documents,” she explains.
Instead, her life was fraught with frustration and disappointment. She soon fell out with her cousin, who kicked them out and she eventually ended up in another abusive relationship.
By 2018, Bonisiwe had five children from different fathers. Her situation came to the attention of community social workers in Mamelodi, the township in Pretoria where she lives.
“She was very traumatized,” says Nomsa, one of the social workers handling her case. “Her inability to acquire a birth certificate has only made life worse.”
UNHCR’s legal partner, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), launched its Statelessness Unit in 2011 after seeing an increase in the number of clients needing legal advice on access to nationality.
Through direct legal assistance, strategic litigation, advocacy, and training, LHR has equipped community social workers with critical information, legal processes, and procedures to help their clients.
“We have accompanied Bonisiwe eight times to the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) in Pretoria and Durban, where she is required to apply for late registration of birth (LRB),” adds Nomsa, noting that the process has been extremely challenging.
For Bonisiwe to prove her claim to South African nationality, she needs to submit several documents that include a notice of birth form, a justification for LRB, her biometric details and her parents’ fingerprints and identity documents – an uphill task as she can only provide a signed letter from the local traditional authority confirming her birth and she has no family member she can take a DNA test with to prove her identity.
“I have tried everything. I am stuck. I just feel like giving up,” cries Bonisiwe, who has contemplated suicide.
“I hope to get documentation one day so I can live with dignity.”
Nomsa emphasizes that their office has not given up.
“We will continue working with Bonisiwe and encourage her to see the process through,” she says.
UNHCR’s Buffoni notes that such collective and concerted efforts to address the prevalent issue can help shield women from the risk of abuse and violence.
“We urge the Government to pay special attention to this situation because it can turn it around,” she says.
Bonisiwe currently lives with three of her sons in a cramped one-room shack and depends on her two older sons, Mthokozisi and S’phamandla, who work odd jobs.
“Life is tough, but I’ll be okay,” she says. “I hope to get documentation one day so I can live with dignity.”