Trapped in loveless, abusive marriages

Trapped in loveless, abusive marriages

MASERU – ’MAMAKHETHE Phomane, 53, has a pathological hatred of Sesotho proverbs that, in her opinion, promote the abuse of women in their matrimonial homes.
One such proverb is ngoetsi e ngalla motšeo. The proverb seemingly encourages married women to stick with their abusive husbands and, when the going gets tough, to seek refuge in the kitchens, where they supposedly belong.

Another she hates says mosali o tšoara thipa ka bohaleng, the imagery of which is a woman clutching the sharp blade of a knife as she protects her children, property or herself during an attack.
A knife, according to Phomane, has a handle safe to be held by a hand, in contrast to the blade which can result in injury.
“A lot of women die because of these sayings,” lamented Phomane.
“I think they promote abuse because women are not expected to speak out about their abuse,” she said.
Phomane describes herself as “the proud daughter of ’Masetšoana and Retšelisitsoe Ramakhula”.

Notice how she starts with her mother when she introduces her parents, something that may be considered culturally offensive by some die-hard traditionalists.
“I am proud of my upbringing,” said Phomane, the founder of the feminist SHE-Hive organisation. The organisation advocates for equality of women with men and promotes women’s rights in a highly patriarchal society.
Phomane attributes her desire to fight for the rights of the marginalised in society to her “tough and strict” mother.
“I am who I am because of the way she raised me.”

“I wouldn’t report to my mother when other girls beat me as she would quiz me instead of fighting in my corner. So I had that strong background and I found it unfair to see other children being treated as softies and I didn’t understand her,” she said.
“Maybe somehow she knew she had to raise me to be a fighter considering the challenges that women face.”
She said at 16 years, she got pregnant after her first sexual encounter.
“I wouldn’t say my behaviour led me to that and I was very attached to my daughter, young as I was, and some people even thought I planned my pregnancy,” she said.
She said her attitude towards a lot of things changed after she became a mother.

Six years after giving birth to her daughter, Phomane married her husband, who is now late, although they didn’t date for long.
“Our marriage was very good at the beginning, for at least six months,” she said.
She said things then changed as her husband became aggressive and abusive.
“I felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said, referring to her decision to frequently leave her husband.
“The experiences were unbearable. He would go for days without talking to me. My life changed and every time I ran back home he would come and apologise and convince my parents that he loved me.”
“He loved me but I realised that growing up in an abusive environment had an impact on him. He didn’t understand what love was. It wasn’t easy for him, all the horrible things he did to me he interpreted them as love. He abused me so much.”

She said she stayed in an abusive marriage for 20 years. Each time she returned home, her mother would tell her that the experience was not new and many women were holding on rather than flee, she said.
She said her mother would tell her that “all families go through this and mosali o tšoara thipa ka bohaleng”.
“I went back home so many times but I kept returning to him and on my return there was no difference. The abuse would continue.”
The situation progressively got worse when “he strangled me and threatened to kill me with a knife”.
“That’s when I realised I couldn’t take it anymore and left for good. I left with my children. I formed a group with my friends where we used to counsel each other about our problems. My daughter was still in school back then.”

She said one of her friends, Joyce Moletsane, and many other women offered tremendous support.
“Their support was amazing and they gave me the support that my family failed to offer.”
Church members were also supportive.
“I hated the support I got from my family because it was a selfish one. I was always expected to go back to my husband regardless of how abusive he was. Their advice depressed me instead of helping me. I wouldn’t have been where I am today if I had continued to take their advice,” she said, adding that it led to frosty relations between her and family members.
“Things are going well and I feel like it’s payback from God for all the pains I endured.”

She said she still faces challenges, “but they are nothing compared to what I went through”.
“I had problems in my marriage and I even thought of killing myself.”
Phomane was at one time a finance manager at the Lesotho Network of People Living with HIV and AIDS (LENEPWHA) before being kicked out on accusations of stealing the organisation’s funds.
At home, her husband would accuse her of staying late at work because she was having adulterous affairs at the office.
So, when she arrived home after being fired, “burdened with pain, my husband kicked me out as well saying I was worthless”.
“I had to stay with my daughter at her rental room and depended on her school stipend for survival,” she said.

“In a way, I believe it built me to be the woman I am today and it’s another reason why I stayed at She-Hive regardless of how hard it was at the beginning because I was comfortable here.”
She said her daughter was very worried about her mental state due to the rough experiences she endured.
“My daughter encouraged me to find something to keep myself busy during the day when my son was at school,” she said.
She said she also experienced “endless” dreams of women crying out for help so she approached her pastor about it and asked her to talk to God for interpretation.
“That’s how this association was born in 2012 with the support of friends. Its existence is spiritual and I believe it’s my calling, a calling I am content with.”

Phomane said starting and then holding the organisation together was difficult because of lack of funding but that did not kill the dream.
“It’s not easy to control unpaid people who work for the organisation.”
The organisation’s key objectives, amongst others, are “to eliminate all forms of Gender Based Violence (GBV) by encouraging communities to embark on the struggle to end domestic violence”.
What holds the organisation together amid the difficulties is the fact that it was formed by a survivor of domestic violence who feels that the justice system is “too slow in its implementation of strategies to end gender-based violence,” said Phomane.
“I feel it’s everyone’s responsibility to act towards abolishing GBV.”
She-Hive, which has 12 employees, offers daily counseling, psychosocial support and legal advice.

She said they target every victim of abuse through different programmes.
“We help them cope and not see their abuse as the end of the world,” said Phomane, who was forced to single-handedly run the organisation “for a long time” due to lack of money to pay staff.
“Having worked with other Non-Governmental Organisations such as the Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) and LENEPWHA, I knew I can use some of the (government) ministries with a similar mandate as mine,” she said, singling out the Ministry of Gender, which “supported me so much with staff”.
“It survived the worst without salaries or anything.”
Despite working with unpaid voluntary staff, She-Hive won the Gender Links trophy of GBV and Conflict Resolution in 2013 and 2014, just seven months after starting operations.

“I was proud and surprised to win against organisations that had existed for years. I knew it was God’s doing.”
She said she strengthened other women by sharing her story but others would call telling her that she was embarrassing herself.
“I knew my goal, I kept on sharing. I even told members that when they feel ready they can tell their stories too. I believe that’s how I attracted more members and funding.”
She said this irritated her now late husband, who accused her of making money using his name.

“I kept on sharing despite his views because all I wanted was to help other women. Some victims even committed suicide while others lost their minds. I wanted to let them know that they can survive the aftermath of abuse.”
After the death of her husband, Phomane had to fight a legal battle to wrestle her house from a woman he was now living with.
She won with the help from Women and Law in Southern Africa – Lesotho (WILSA). She is now living in her house.
“It wasn’t an easy fight. At some point, I felt like giving up but I couldn’t because I was conscious that I had to encourage other women,” she said, adding: “I went through all the processes the court wanted until a court order was issued.”
She-Hive is now spreading its wings to three other districts in Leribe, Berea and Mafeteng.

“I have indeed seen the grace of God. It wasn’t an overnight success and I still pinch myself to make sure it is really happening.”
Her second husband was shot dead in 2018, putting her through another round of trauma after she was accused of killing him and a fight ensued as family conflicts delayed the burial for two weeks.
“The sad part is that those people are now my dependents although they were at the forefront of harassing me and wanting to kill me.”
She said after her husband’s burial, there were attempts to convince the Master of the High Court to grab her property.
“They failed dismally because he had refused to sign divorce papers after years of staying apart.”

The couple had been married in community of property.
Phomane said she even used the incident to raise awareness among women who entered into marriages without legitimate documents.
“I felt pity for her (the woman who was living with her husband) and I taught other women to avoid being victims as well,” she said.
She said men, as the major perpetrators of GBV also need counselling “because talking to women only is pointless”.
“We have to create awareness for men,” she said, adding that they have established a programme called Iphahlolle which targets men.
“If men can get counseling as well, it will be very helpful and maybe reduce the rate of domestic violence. Most men only understand GBV when we talk about their daughters,” she said.

She said the country still has a long way to go in addressing GBV.
Her experience showed her that courts need to change their approach towards the granting of bail to people accused of committing GBV.
“Men get bail and return home to their victims. Full of anger, they repeat beating the woman or even end up killing them.”
She said domestic violence cases will not decrease “until this bail issue is addressed”.

Phomane urged MPs to speedily work on the Domestic Violence Bill, which has already been tabled in the House.
“I wish it can be finalised and see where that can lead us.”
She said they have had experiences of badly injured GBV victims approaching the organisation for help.

“Afterwards, they would return to the perpetrators and cases would be withdrawn because such women would say they don’t even know why they are in court.”
She advised women in abusive relationships to leave before things turn fatal.
“Once you see abuse, take action before it’s too late. Be selfish and put yourselves first before properties or children. Do everything for yourself first and then you will be able to live for your children,” Phomane said.

’Mapule Motsopa

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