If we don't talk, people will die: abused women speak out

Bethany Home in Joburg takes in women who have been abused, and shows them and their kids how love should work. Some of the residents share their powerful survival stories

26 November 2017 - 00:00
By shanthini naidoo AND Shanthini Naidoo
 Lettie*, 27, with son aged 1, at the Bethany Home in Johannesburg.
Image: Alon Skuy Lettie*, 27, with son aged 1, at the Bethany Home in Johannesburg.

We don't need to remind you of the stats [about women abuse]. Everyone knows someone [who has been affected], which means we are all affected. So how about talking about solutions?

The words Bridget Edwards - someone who has dedicated her life to solutions - are meaningful.

A facilitator at the Bethany Home for abused women in Joburg for about two decades, she has seen it all. "It is amazing what human beings can do to each other," she says.

Edwards's solution is simple, but long term: to break the cycle of abuse against women and children by fixing the broken.

The Bethany Home approach entails taking the women and their children in and reviving them. As their hearing aids are fitted and their teeth fixed, as their bruises start to fade, the victims of abuse are given clean clothes, food and a secure, warm place to live. Most are gainfully employed or educating themselves. Their children are enrolled in school. And they get hugs, lots of hugs.

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Here, there is anonymity. There is no prescribed term of stay. The women leave when they are ready to stand on their feet again. There is order and structure. Counselling is the key that helps women move their children out of the cycle. The motto is: don't accept it, it was not your fault, you can move on.


The women featured in this photo essay are victims, but, more than that, they are survivors. They have broken the cycle, for themselves and for their children. Because children of abuse and of abused mothers should not be forever affected.

Edwards says: "We have lost the moral fabric and the family aspect of our society. Boys need a role model. Where dad shows his son how to treat mummy, and son then treats his partner well.

"Raise girls who know that abuse is not the way, it is not normal. This stops them from constantly looking for security in the wrong places. Children who are raised in loving environments will pass that on."

The women are from various backgrounds, but have the same issue. "The family unit is not working. There is a lack of care and often no structure," says Edwards.

"The point is to bring love and decency back into society. Love gives affirmation and self-esteem. I have 35-year-old women who have never been told that they are loved. It doesn't matter where they go from here. The children especially will know this year as one in which they were loved. It might be a drop in the ocean, but that is how we break the cycle."

As Edwards says, it is amazing what human beings can do to each other. 



Lettie, 27, lives at Bethany Home with her one-year-old son

"My parents were dead, I was 15 and living in East London. My friend and I thought we will come to Joburg and find work as actresses on Generations. There was nobody to tell us this was not possible."

The two hitched a lift to Auckland Park, where of course they were turned away. "We didn't know anyone. There was a man who said we should come to his place and he would help us. He took us to his flat and bought us clothes. We were happy, he took us to salons and did our hair. This is the life we looking for."

That evening, he sold both the girls to older men. They were paid well, lured into drinking alcohol and later, using cocaine.

"He bought us clothes, we felt like princesses but now I know he was taking us to make money. The next day, he sent me with an old baba and I had to stay at his place. I didn't know it was [sex work].

He sent me with an old baba and I had to stay at his place ... I didn't know it was [sex work]

"We were addicted, we made a lot of money but we had to give half to the man, and then we spent the rest on cocaine. Once when I found a boyfriend, he let me stay with him and gave me some money. But he was so abusive, he would swear and say I have no parents, he started beating me."

"I just broke one day. I told myself I can't do this. Why can't God bless me with a mind to become a better woman? I told myself it's enough of me abusing myself and letting men abuse me."

Fortuitously, a pregnancy test turned up positive. Lettie found herself at Bethany Home.

A year later, she works at a nail salon.

Her little boy bounces around at her feet.

"I earn about R900 a week. It hurts me that I used to make more money in a day. That was the only work I knew. But at least this is my own and I don't spend it on drugs or pay a pimp. I can buy what I need for my baby and we will be OK."


Siyanda lives at Bethany Home together with her son of 18 months

"I've been here for four months. The father of my baby was always beating me and I had to run away," she says.

Siyanda thought her new boyfriend was a "a good person" until she moved in with him.

"He didn't want me to go out, to leave the flat at all. Not even to go to the shops to buy bread," she says, crying silently.

She was pregnant, and had nowhere to go.

"He used to hit me, and bite me. I tried to fight back. Twice neighbours called the police. They said we must sort out our problems, then they took a bribe from him and left.

Siyanda (pictured) lives at Bethany Home together with her son of 18 months.
Image: Alon Skuy Siyanda (pictured) lives at Bethany Home together with her son of 18 months.

"I am not a talkative person but one day I met the neighbour and she said he had another girlfriend who he had also hit. Her body was damaged. She died.

"I wanted to take my baby and go away.

"I don't know why he had this background of hitting women. But I was not going to be like the other lady. They said she died because she was bleeding internally."

She waited for a Friday, saying she was going to visit her sister in Tembisa.

She arrived at Bethany Home [with her son] and was taken in. "I came to look for a place to sleep for the night. I was welcomed."

Siyanda is preparing the meal of the day for the ladies: rice and canned pilchards.

"I feel better for myself and my baby. He is at creche. I am helping in the kitchen now but I am going to study and find work. I am still heartsore. For now, I don't even want to look at men.

"I wish women who are hurt would talk to other people. If we don't talk, people will die."


Shereen lives at Bethany home with her son, 9, and daughter, 17

Her son is writing lines in his school book: "I will respect my mother."

"He broke a window after I told him not to play rough," the former recruitment officer says. She is the house mother at the shelter now, and her kids are at school while she looks for a job.

Her partner had beaten her for as long as she remembered, but it got worse when she was retrenched.

"It was because I was reliant on him, I think. It is not as easy as people make it seem, to leave. You are used to routine. Even if it is abuse, it is a routine.

Shereen with her nine-year-old son.
Image: Alon Skuy Shereen with her nine-year-old son.

"I had to retrain my emotions, to question my relationship. When I was missing him, I had to ask, 'What am I missing?' You sugar-coat things and make it rosy when it's not."

The cycle started with her grandmother, who fell pregnant at 16 and was forced into marriage. "I fell pregnant at 16. My mum was also 16 when she had me. From age nine to about 13, I was molested. At 23, I found out I was the product of rape. It explained why my mother was never close to me. I wish I had known all those years."

At 23, I found out I was the product of rape. It explained why my mother was never close to me

In her last relationship, after a horrific bout of violence, she spoke to her kids and together they made the decision to leave. "I had R5, I knocked on doors and asked for help. We had R33 to come to town."

They found themselves at Bethany Home, and were approved to move in.

"I was afraid, but the psychologist helped me to be firm. This was a chance for my daughter. She doesn't deserve to have this family curse. This life is not punishment for me, because of what my mum went through. No. I don't need to go through it and it wasn't my fault."

The bamboo plants on the windowsill were donated to the home. Shereen rescued them, and they are sprouting.

She has business plans and idea maps taped on the walls of her room.

She hugs her son when he completes the pages of lines. "I don't ever hit him, but I know I need to teach him respect."

And a note to her girl. "Never give up. Your name means conquer."

She already has - she just turned 17. 


Thelma, 23, comes into the office bouncing, dancing, speaking in a rap sequence about her day, dimples lifting her smile.

In her bedroom there is a Danielle Steel novel next to her university books, and a pin board showing her results, mostly A symbols.

She starts to rattle off her story: "Well, I was abused by my stepfather... my mother knew... she took me for an abortion you know... then they sold me into human trafficking... those people gave me drugs (crystal meth, I think)... I was in the hospital then I came here. Now I have a bursary to study but I'm going to convert my diploma into a degree."

I have to tell her to stop and start at the beginning. That is when the bubbly Thelma disappears and she stops, staring vacantly into a terrible place. She is somewhere else for a long while.

"Thelma, are you OK?" I ask.

"I didn't know where I was. It was dark and I was chained to a chair. They covered me in blankets and they only took me out to go to a room. For sex. I couldn't see the men. I wanted to die. 

"I only knew it was morning if it was cold, it was dark all the time. After a few days, I heard different footsteps. It was the police. I hadn't eaten for about nine days but I managed to make a sound so they heard me, came in and found me.

It was dark and I was chained to a chair. They covered me in blankets and they only took me out to go to a room. For sex

"When I woke up in the hospital, I was looking for my mother, I don't know why, but I asked for her."

She knows her mother's heart was devoid of love.

"She knew about the abuse but said my stepfather wouldn't want me when he has her. I was close to him because she didn't care.

"The more I speak about it and see the therapist... I have seizures sometimes when we talk. But at least I made it, some people don't," she says, the bubbles rising.

The bursary has changed her life.

"Hey, I took a shot! I phoned in on a radio station and I won. I'm doing well.

"I survived because I have a strong mind. I know I didn't bring this on myself so I need to get through."

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Another long pause and she goes back to that past, the one she has to escape to function again.

"I don't have a plan. I tell myself that if I can make it through the night then I can get through the day. Nobody asks to be abused. Some are small kids, but you can't let it be all you are about."


Celine, 36, lives at Bethany Home with her two daughters, 5 and 3

The room is decorated in a million, mostly pink, things. Fairies, unicorns, flowers, princesses and rainbows.

A happy space... overwhelmingly happy.

Her five-year-old hugs me around the knees and digs in the piles of neatly organised toys to find her bucket of candy floss. She shows me her lipstick and glitter pots.

Celine*, 36, two daughters, 5 and 3.
Image: Alon Skuy Celine*, 36, two daughters, 5 and 3.

Celine says she had to create an exaggerated sense of comfort to make up for the dark years.

"I had to run away. My teeth were gone, I was blue all over and he had stabbed me with scissors. His mother brought me here. She told Bridget that he was going to kill me if I stayed."

The abusive marriage she left after nine years left her an emotional wreck. She cries and laughs intermittently.

An orphaned only child, she thought as a 19-year-old that this was the way love was.

"I thought it was a life. He is a sober person, he never drank. He was just big and very aggressive.

"The day he hit me while I was carrying my baby, I saw the look on my elder child's face and I broke. I knew it was not how I want to live."

That was a year ago.

Celine says Bridget has helped her find work, an admin position. The girls are in school and she has been saving up. Soon she will have her deposit for a flat.

"My child loves to give hugs, but she will shy away from men. She does not call her father 'Dad', she says his name and she turns away when he talks to her. By law I can't keep him away from them. He sees them for 10 minutes once a week.

"I lost so much of my life. The first person to love me and my kids, truly, is Bridget. I have depressing moments and mood swings, but she helps me through it," Celine says, prompting another bout of tears.

She is learning to forgive her abuser.

"I loved him from the deepest of my heart but I realise what he did is not love. He did not love my girls.

"Now we know it, and we will be OK."

*Names have been changed to protect the women's privacy.


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