In one of South Africa’s most shameful statistics, a woman is killed every three hours, according to SAPS data. This figure is around five times the world average. And, under the lockdown imposed to curb the COVID -19 pandemic, the situation has got worse, as the tensions in relationships buckled under the added strain of enforced togetherness, fear of infection, loss of income and an uncertain future.
In just the first week of lockdown, the government Gender-based Violence (GBV) Command Centre received 2 300 calls, and the executive director of People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA), Mary Makgaba, reported a rise in calls about abuse of all kinds – physical, sexual, emotional and financial. By 17 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa was driven to describe GBV as the country’s “second pandemic”. In an address to the nation, he read the names of 21 women who had been killed in the previous two weeks, starting with Tshegofatso Pule, 29, whose heavily pregnant body was found hanging from a tree in Roodepoort.
READ MORE | How to help abuse survivors
“I am appalled at what is no less than a war being waged against the women and children of our country,” he said. “At a time when the pandemic has left us all feeling vulnerable and uncertain, violence is being unleashed on women and children with a brutality that defies comprehension.”
But, abuse takes different forms. Emotional, sexual and financial violence can be as deadly as the physical kind, demoralising and breaking women down. Know the signs and get help to get out safely. Leaving is emotionally challenging, especially as women can love and pity their partner, hoping that they will change, as abusers invariably promise to do. Leaving is also dangerous – it’s the time most femicides occur. So, get advice and help from an experienced organisation before making a move.
Here are the stories of three women who had the courage to leave their abusive partners.
Malika Jacobs*, 48, Researcher
“At 24, I’d had my heart broken and was vulnerable. A young guy where I worked seemed like just what I needed. He flattered me and had great charm, with an arrogance that should have been a warning. He declared his love and swore devotion – music to my ears. He wanted to marry me. He wanted to have a baby!
I stopped taking contraceptives and was pregnant within weeks. We were thrilled. Then I got a call at work from a distraught woman accusing me of breaking up her marriage. I felt hot, cold and nauseous. I went home ill. The phone rang non-stop. He was so sorry, and came over to explain. He arrived full of sweet words and lies – about his failed marriage and their inability to have a child. He said the child we were having was his dream, and professed how much he loved me. He had filed for divorce, and would care for and live for us. That was everything I wanted to hear.
I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. He wasn’t overjoyed that it was a girl, but didn’t mention it until she got flu at six weeks. She cried incessantly. One night, he screamed at me to make her to stop. Then he threw me against the wall. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to push him away, but he punched me in the jaw and sent me sprawling. He ran out of the flat, and I lay on the cold floor trying to get my head around what had just happened.
I fled to my parents, but three days later he called. He was terribly sorry, and had to have me back. And, I gave in and went back. I wanted desperately to believe him. I wanted my child to have a dad. We got married, and had a second daughter. But, he’d go out and get drunk, then come back angry and get violent. That became a pattern.”
“Finally, one night he barged into the bathroom and head-butted me. I heard his forehead crack my nose, and felt the hot pain and blood spread wetly across my face. Our daughters were screaming and crying. He slammed the door as he left. I had never felt so devastated, alone and frightened. I called my dad, and we went to the doctor and police station. I filed for divorce that week. A protection order followed together with an assault charge. Then came a three-year divorce and custody battle. The worst was watching my daughters struggle with the tension, and being physically fearful of their father. Through therapy and support groups with other abuse survivors, and the love of my parents, today I am remarried to a truly loving, dedicated and supportive man who accepts me as I am. My children are deeply loved and valued, and I am strong. I have walked through fire and survived.”
EMOTIONAL AND SEXUAL ABUSE
Fikzo Simaye*, 39, Training Provider
"I was 17 and still at school. He was six years older, confident and mature. He spoilt me with nice soap and things that my mom couldn’t afford as a domestic worker. I thought he was hot! He also had a quick temper, and was jealous and controlling. He wanted to know where I was all the time and who I was with. But, I thought that was love. My mom helped support me doing IT at tech, and when I got pregnant in my final year, she was broken. I couldn’t study and support a baby, so I had to marry him – it was socially expected.
We moved to Joburg and rented a flat so he could work in long-distance transport. He was away for weeks at a time, where I would be alone. But, I was allowed no friends – he said they’d influence me to do wrong things. When we were with other people, he always interrupted me. I felt stupid and useless.
I wanted to continue my studies, but he said a woman’s place was at home with the kids, and soon we had three. Whenever he’d get back, even if I was asleep, he would want sex. If I resisted, he would beat me and take it. He believed that it was his right. I didn’t know what to do. I grew so deeply depressed that I tried to kill myself using pills, then a knife. I was desperate for affection and comfort, and I began talking to another man. He found out and made me strip naked. He poured water on me, then whipped me with a belt until I collapsed.”
Thandeka Radebe*, 34, Salon Owner
“He was my favourite client; a musician who knew the value of good-looking hair. I used to joke that he only dated me because I’d colour his ’fro for free. He’d say he was a good advert for my work, and he was. Then he got into drugs, and lost some gigs. I noticed small sums disappearing at home, but didn’t want to believe that it was him.
He started asking for money for transport or equipment hire. I’d give it because I loved him. But, when I discovered that he was drinking and smoking it up with his friends while I was working, and heard rumours about other women, I broke up with him. A few months later he was back, saying he couldn’t live without me and swearing that he was clean; begging for another chance. And, a loan.
He wanted to open a recording studio with a DJ friend, make hit records and set us up for life. He said not being financially independent made him feel like less of a man. My salon was doing well, so I went for it. My sisters warned me, but he and his friend were persuasive. It tanked. But, the thousands I lost were nothing compared to the heartache.”
“I came back early from work one day, and found him in bed with a young singer. I threw their clothes, his music collection and guitars out of the window. I felt betrayed and used. I poured my energy into the salon, made back what I lost, and now I’m growing my business. Ironically, he’s making it quite big at last. When I see him on TV sometimes, my heart still skips a beat. But, I will never go there again.”
*Not their real names
POWA: 011 642 4345, Lockdown Counselling number 076 694 5911
Stop Gender Violence Helpline toll-free: 0800 150 150
LifeLine National: 0861 322 322,
Families SA: (011) 975 7106/7
Department of Social Development GBV Command Centre toll-free: 0800 428 428, SMS “help” to 31531
For shelters and guidelines on the Domestic Violence Act, applying for protection orders and drawing up a safety plan, click here.