Women working for women

2009-08-10 00:00

Photos: Ian Carbutt

June Grindley-Ferris, project leader at Esther House.

* Co-founder (with husband Ivon) and project leader of Esther House, home of safety for women and their children in distress.

* Mother of three sons (one died in a car accident at 18), grandmother of four.

* Raised in Edenvale on the East Rand.

* A committed Christian who says without Jesus (and husband Ivon), she can do nothing.

“I DESCRIBE myself as a Jack Russell who thinks it’s a Rottweiler,” says June Grindley-Ferris. “I get mad before I get scared. I’m brave, sometimes foolishly so.”

I reckon you have to be brave to work in the field of domestic abuse, especially if, like Grindley-Ferris, the aggrieved husband of one of your charges tries to run you down with his car.

Or, if you were once yourself a victim of domestic abuse. Grindley-Ferris left her first husband after 13 years of marriage, taking her three sons with her. “He said I’d be out on the street within a month of being on my own, but I managed as a single parent for 18 years,” she said.

Grindley-Ferris says she was a “late bloomer” when it came to finding her passion: helping women to help themselves. “I have a passion for the women of Africa. Many of them have such a hard life, raising their children and educating them, often alone, and with little authority over their own lives,” she says.

Together with Ivon, her husband of 18 years, and under the wing of the NCF church, she opened Esther House in 2001. It was the year she turned 60. The couple previously worked in a Christian drug rehabilitation facility in New Hanover.

Since its opening, the 40-bed refuge in Pietermaritzburg has never been empty, accommodating abused women and rape victims ranging in age from five to 85.

Now nearing 70, Grindley-Ferris shows no signs of flagging. And the business cards for a planned new halfway house and training centre for women are already printed.

Grindley-Ferris hasn’t finished challenging what she calls the “norms” working against women. One of these is the belief that women do not have rights. The other is the idea that a man who beats or hurts his partner, does so out of love.

Esther House guests stay for periods of up to six months, during which time they receive counselling and some skills training. They are supported in applying for ID documents and/or child support grants. They are assisted in legal processes by local NGO Justice and Women.

“We want to give them choices, to turn them into strong women who know that God has plans for their lives, that he didn’t intend them to die at the age of 32 …”

In return, the women are expected to want to change their lives, help with household chores and respect the overtly Christian ethos of the house.

Grindley-Ferris says the staff who run the house, including its director Nokuthulu Zwane, started out as guests. “Like me, they have empathy for the women who come here. When you’ve experienced it yourself, you understand how hard it is to break the cycle of violence, how conditioned you become into accepting it and believing you can’t do anything without your man.”

Grindley-Ferris says although she has always “believed in women” and once burnt her bra, she’s not a feminist and thinks fathers have the toughest job of all. “We also need to reteach men to be fathers and husbands,” she says.

• Contact June Grindley-Ferris at 072 713 1285.

Goodness Nxumalo, manager of The Haven.

* Manager: The Haven, refuge for victims of domestic violence and rape, and their children.

* Born in 1963 in Port Shepstone, where she also matriculated.

* Qualified school teacher, mother of four and grandmother to two.

* Believes that women are more aware of their rights today and have a greater chance of being heard.

“MY wish during women’s month is that all women find the courage to talk about abuse and not hide their suffering,” says Goodness Nxumalo. “It’s not a disgrace. I want women to realise that people can help.”

One of those offering help is Nxumalo herself. Being appointed to the position of house mother at The Haven in 1999 gave her a solid foundation from which to take up the reins as the home’s manager.

Nxumalo’s qualification as a teacher coincided with the government’s controversial policy, introduced in the late nineties, of teacher redeployment. It shattered any confidence she might have had in the security the profession could offer her. So she accepted a job at the Haven.

“At that stage, I was desperate for work,” she recalls. “But once I started, it never felt like a second choice. I became passionate about the work.”

Although she admits the job sometimes becomes a “heavy weight”, she’s been rewarded by a perceptible shift in the way so-called “women’s issues” are perceived and handled in South Africa.

“Today, if women talk about their unhappiness, someone will hear them,” she says. “They are no longer alone. Regardless of upbringing or cultural background, they are more aware they have rights ... and can object if someone is hurting them.”

Nxumalo says a lot of the credit for this shift must go to the government, which, she says, has “opened up” the processes available to women who are seeking help. “In the past we struggled to lay charges or to apply for maintenance. Now, the legal processes seem a bit easier.”

The Haven also receives group and individual counselling services from Famsa. The wellbeing of children is handled by Social Welfare and rape victims are referred to Lifeline. Housing up to 20 women and their children at any time, the Haven receives financial assistance from the government. This is supplemented by funding from the Community Chest and private donors.

Despite greater support networks for women, Nxumalo believes domestic violence is increasing and there are many out there, some victims of incest, who remain quiet about their lot.

“We find that the big fear [among women] is that the husband is the breadwinner. So the women don’t talk about the abuse because if she lays a charge, the husband will be arrested and nobody will be providing at home.”

Nxumalo says the rate of return to the shelter, where the average stay is six weeks, is high — almost 100%. “They’ve got no job waiting for them.” The other problem, she says, is the idea that beating is a symbol of a man’s love.

“We can send them to social workers and counsellors ... we can offer suggestions, but we don’t tell the women what to do.” Ultimately, the women make their own decisions, she says.

• Contact Goodness Nxumalo at 073 870 7043.

Photo: Sharon Dell

Solla Buthelezi, paralegal at Jaw.

* Paralegal with Justice and Women (Jaw).

* Born in Pietermaritzburg, mother of six, grandmother to 11.

* Worked for seven years as a saleswoman in a clothing store.

* Says Jaw “saved her life” after 25 years in an abusive marriage and describes lobola as “rubbish”.

“DON’T forget, women are also abusers,” says Solla Buthelezi, who once helped a disabled man to get a protection order against his wife who was beating him.

Buthelezi says some men come to the Jaw offices, asking where they can find “Justice and Men”.

“I tell them I can help them too,” she says.

But when the men ask: “Where is Men’s Day [opposed to Women’s Day]”, she says it shows a “lack of understanding”.

A soft-spoken but self-confessed “straight-talker”, Buthelezi says among the men she deals with — usually the husbands or partners of her female clients — she’s treated with respect, partly because of her mature age but also because of her judicious approach to issues.

As a paralegal, she consults with mainly women on a range of issues such as divorce, maintenance, protection orders and inheritance issues. She also mediates between partners over maintenance payments, helps with paperwork for applications, gives advice and even accompanies women to court hearings if they feel nervous. “Ultimately, we help women to become more independent and stand on their own,” she says.

When she started at Jaw, she says, most of the cases were around maintenance and protection orders. Today, most of them are women seeking divorce. Protection orders still come a close second.

Buthelezi was a founder staff member of Jaw when the NGO first opened its doors in the Magistrate’s court in 1997. She was among seven women specifically recruited for their personal experience of abuse.

“Jaw changed my life. I was so depressed at the time. They sent me on a course at Famsa which opened my eyes and they taught me not to be afraid of anyone.”

Today, the only staff member remaining from the original seven recruitees, Buthelezi prides herself on being “straightforward” and describes the practice of lobola as “rubbish”.

“I speak my mind because for too long during my marriage. I was quiet and I was held back by culture. My husband’s mother told me not to report her son for his abuse because he would end up hating me. My own mother told me I couldn’t do anything because he had paid lobola.”

Buthelezi says her experience means she will never put pressure on her own daughter to marry. “She must exercise her free will.”

Buthelezi’s message for women? “They must speak out if they have a problem; find someone to talk to whom they can trust.”

Buthelezi wants to carry on working for as long as possible. “This job doesn’t just help other women, it helps to keep me going, too,” she says. “It took courage to divorce my husband, but I never looked back. But I have to say thank you to Jaw. It has made me strong. Now, I don’t care what the problems are that women face, I will solve them.”

• Contact Solla Buthelezi at 072 879 3570.

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