Shelters can offer abused women and their children emergency accommodation and a chance to get back on their feet.
But where do they go when their time at the shelter is up?
Many have little choice but to go right back where they came from – to the man who abused them.
Women's advocacy groups say if the authorities wanted to do something more than merely symbolic to stop violence against women and children, they would provide affordable housing for women leaving shelters.
Lack of affordable housing is seen as one of the biggest challenges shelters face.
In fact, says Lisa Vetten of the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, although domestic violence is usually seen as a problem of criminal justice and welfare, it can also be seen as a problem of housing.
In a paper for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in 2006, she wrote that women's right to housing is threatened by violence because women are often forced to leave their homes, either to escape further violence or because they have been evicted by their partners.
The Domestic Violence Act does allow for the eviction of the abusive partner from the home if this is in the woman's best interests.
"This provision recognises that women have limited access to shelters and should not be forced into homelessness to avoid abuse," writes Vetten. But this provision has been infrequently applied.
And, for their safety, it is often better for women to leave the household and stay somewhere where their partner cannot find them.
In the first instance, this usually means a shelter. But there are not enough shelters – fewer than 100 across the country – and many are critically short of funds. And shelters cannot accommodate women indefinitely.
Shelters typically offer emergency accommodation for six months or less, with some job training, counselling, legal advice and creche facilities.
Some also offer "second stage" and a handful offer "third stage" accommodation for women who have found a job and can afford a small rent. But there are very few of these, shelter staff say.
Sometimes, says Dorothy du Plooy, head of St Anne's shelter in Woodstock, women who seek shelter from abusive partners are the second or third generation of women being abused.
They cannot go back to their parents and their only hope of breaking the cycle of violence is affordable housing where they can make a new start with their children.
"Domestic violence is a worldwide evil and most women and children find themselves displaced with nowhere to go," says Linda Fugard, spokesperson for the National Shelter Movement, which was launched in February to lobby government for better facilities for women and children affected by violence.
Housing for women escaping domestic violence should be part of a national plan for housing for people with special needs, including the elderly, the disabled, and people living with HIV/Aids, says Ilse Ahrends of the Saartjie Baartman Centre.
"We can only do so much," Ahrends says.
"If there is no alternative after the shelter, the women go back into abuse."
This article was originally published on page 13 of Cape Times on November 25, 2008.