Social workers on the frontline during COVID-19

Despite the challenges posed by South Africa's national lockdown, Livhuwani, a social worker with Childline South Africa, is doing her best to support her clients.

Daniel Hartford
07 September 2020

Livhuwani knows first-hand the value of social work in supporting children and young people who have suffered violence in South Africa. “In terms of violence, it was there where I grew up,” says the Johannesburg-based Childline South Africa social worker, “I didn’t know it as ‘gender-based violence’, I knew it as ‘a man must rule his family.’ – only now I’m realising that that was abuse, that was domestic violence.”

The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in South Africa, and globally, has placed women and children at even greater risk, with many trapped at home with their abusers, while getting access to support services has been a serious challenge.

“This period of COVID-19, we have registered so many cases of domestic violence, gender-based violence [and] sexual abuse – so many cases that were contributed by this lockdown and staying at home,” says Livhuwani who works in the Orange Farm area, south of Johannesburg.

UNICEF South Africa/2020

A UNICEF global survey, conducted between 1 May and 14 August 2020, found that violence prevention and response services have been severely disrupted in more than 104 countries during COVID-19 lockdown.

In South Africa, a country with already high levels of gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against children (VAC), access to support services is critical.

ChildLine South Africa is a child protection non-profit organisation providing free counselling services and since the start of the South African lockdown in March, the phonelines haven’t stopped ringing. Over the end of March and early April, 21,827 calls were received – up 67% from the same period last year.

UNICEF South Africa/2020/video
Livhuwani meets with one of her clients in Johannesburg, South Africa.

While incidents of GBV and VAC have increased, the notably strict lockdown regulations in South Africa has meant that providers of crucial services like Livhuwani have had to adapt to restrictions in order to continue supporting their clients. “When COVID-19 started it was hectic,” says Livhuwani. “I woke up in the morning, I went to the office, I gathered all the files and then I started working from home – rescheduling the clients, telling them that we will talk over the phone”.

With the easing of lockdown restrictions since June, Livhuwani has been able to meet her clients in person but even then, the necessary precautions of mask wearing, and physical distancing pose another obstacle as reading non-verbal communication during therapy sessions becomes a challenge. As Livhuwani explains, “With a mask on, it becomes difficult for me as a social worker to see how this person [is doing] – is what she is saying correlating with what she is doing with her body?”

Despite the obstacles, knowing that children face an amplified threat of violence and abuse under the lockdown restrictions is the source of Livhuwani’s determination in ensuring that her clients receive the psycho-social support that they need.

As lockdown restrictions are further relaxed in South Africa, Livhuwani’s excitement is palpable, “Just to see my clients and to have those groups – you know the empowerment groups, the therapy groups, the educational groups – I can’t wait, I really cannot wait, I feel so good”.