“I am not a woman abuser. I just have a short temper!”
Cynthia is beaten up frequently by her husband. She is 34 and has been married for eight years. She lives in Khayelitsha with her husband.
Note: The main interviewee in this article, the woman called Cynthia, insisted we use her real name up until our fact-checker went through the article with her. When the fact checker read her words back to her, Cynthia became nervous and asked for us to use a pseudonym. We have respected her request.
Cynthia (name changed) says when she first met her husband, Sizwe (name changed), he was a sweet man and never laid a hand on her. Things changed when she found out that he had impregnated another woman not far from their house. She confronted him about it and for two years he denied fathering the other woman’s child.
It was only after Sizwe’s girlfriend threatened him with DNA tests to force him to support the child that he finally acknowledged he was the father. While this caused a lot of tension in the house it was not the day he struck her. That day came after a night of drinking when he came back drunk and wanted his girlfriend to come and spend the night in their home. When Cynthia objected, he smashed her phone to pieces against the wall and assaulted her. Cynthia opened up a case against him and he was arrested but soon released.
A couple of weeks later he again assaulted her and broke her leg, this time in front of her 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. A neighbour heard the child screaming, “Daddy you’re killing Mom” and came over to see what was happening. When he arrived he found Sizwe standing on top of Cynthia with a brick ready to strike her with it.
The abuse affected not only Cynthia but also her daughter. She recalled a time when her daughter got into a fight with her stepsister (Sizwe’s child from a previous relationship). Both children were disciplined by Cynthia’s cousin. The stepsister went to the shebeen to tell Sizwe what happened and he came back raging, saying that no one had a right to discipline his child and that he hated both Cynthia and her child because she was not his. This affected Cynthia’s daughter so much that Cynthia one day received a letter from her daughter’s school saying that she was not performing her school-work. At a counselling session the daughter explained how she couldn’t look at Sizwe any more after the words he uttered. As a result Cynthia took her back to the Eastern Cape.
At family counselling Sizwe apologised and said it was the alcohol he had consumed that made him say those things but Cynthia is not convinced.
Cynthia and Sizwe have not had a child together after she suffered a miscarriage. Sizwe continued to beat Cynthia during her pregnancy. Cynthia believes that the stress and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of Sizwe contributed to her miscarriage. At this point in our interview she broke down and cried.
When asked why she didn’t leave her husband she explained that she had no job. She also has family to support in the Eastern Cape.
“I know and I can see I am in an abusive relationship because there is no more love. I can also see that after a while the only way out of this is through the grave. If I could just find a job I would leave this man and be on my own and get out of this situation. I can’t even afford money to go back to the Eastern Cape and even if I did have the money what would I do with myself there without a job? How would I provide for my family? My only ticket out of this is getting a job,” she said.
In his defence Sizwe said, “Women are the first to go running and report even though they’re also violent. Since they became empowered they do whatever they like. If I drink as the man in the house she also wants to go out and drink and party with her girls and as a married woman there are certain things as a wife you cannot do.”
“When you tell your partner not to do something, she threatens you by saying she will report you to the police and becomes all confrontational. Alcohol also adds fuel to the fire that leads to violence,” he continued.
He denied that he causes trouble in the house when he wants to go see his girlfriends. But he admitted that he sometimes drinks heavily and ends up falling asleep at the shebeen and not coming home.
When asked about his Cynthia’s miscarriage Sizwe said that was not his fault because he was looking forward to having children but his wife had two miscarriages. “I love my wife. Our biggest problem is that I don’t want her to go out drinking with friends and that she doesn’t take me seriously in the house. We have a family to report to but she wants to wear short skirts and tight jeans and act like a single woman.”
Cynthia is just one of many of women who are abused on a daily basis by their partners. In Khayelitsha we also spoke to another women who shared her story of abuse with us, Khanyisa (name changed).
Khanyisa took her boyfriend in after he had lost his job, but their relationship deteriorated. She told us how her boyfriend would slap her, punch her and pull on her hair after a night of drinking. Khanyisa then reported him to her brothers. They chased him away, but he returned the following night apologetic and Khanyisa took him back because she loved him and felt sorry for him.
Before long, the boyfriend hit her again. One night he did not return home after a night out. She asked him where he had been the whole night and he answered her with a slap across her face and a beating that left her with a black eye. This time she opened up a protection order against him and he was chased out of the house by the police. Again he returned and apologised promising to never do it again and again Khanyisa took him back.
“Even in bed he abuses me. When I don’t want to be intimate with him he forces himself on me,” said Khanyisa.
But despite all of this abuse Khanyisa is still in a relationship with her abuser. When asked why, she answered that she takes him back because he has nowhere else to go and he doesn’t have any family in Cape Town.
I spoke to Khanyisa’s boyfriend, Andile (not his real name). He admitted he hits Khanyisa. He gave examples of what causes tension between him and Khanyisa that lead to him hitting her. For example, she has a password on her phone while he doesn’t because, he says, he has nothing to hide.
Andile also said that men and women are different and while women have the ability to talk a lot, men cannot. They instead often keep things bottled up inside and combust under pressure. He further mentioned that when both partners in a relationship drink respect “tends to leave the house” and that friends do sometimes influence a relationship as well.
When asked if he thought it was right to hit a woman he said no but that he did not consider himself an abuser. He then asked me to define an abuser. I said an abuser was someone who is physically and emotionally abusive towards his or her partner. “I am not an abuser I just have a short temper! There needs to be a platform provided by the police or government to give men a chance to vent their frustrations, anger and emotions because men are also abused but are too scared to go to the police because they are ridiculed by them,” said Andile. I then told him that the fact that he was the one who physically hit his girlfriend to such an extent that she has bruises and scars to show for it means she clearly is being violated and abused in the relationship. And that if he also had the physical proof to show for his abuse he could go open up a case against her too.
I asked Andile if he and Khanyisa had tried counselling. He said that counselling does not help because all the things they are advised to do in their counselling sessions are immediately abandoned when they return home.
Mandla Majola is a prominent community leader in Khayelitsha and coordinator of the Treatment Action Campaign’s office there. Majola said that men hit women because women often don’t have the power to hit back and that men always find a way of shifting the blame from themselves to the woman. He gave the example of a woman becoming pregnant in a relationship. The man will ask her why she didn’t use birth control instead of why he didn’t use a condom.
But he also explained that it is tough for men. Many men feel as though they can’t compete with women. They feel that they are less successful than women. It might be because they do worse than their partners in school or because their partners have jobs, houses and cars and they don’t. This failure to achieve often leaves men feeling displaced, frustrated and small. “Men feel voiceless and powerless in their relationships and sex gives them power. By hitting a woman they are telling her who is head of the house. They try to gain respect through fear,” he said.
Majola is deeply troubled by violence against women in his community, “It is happening everywhere in our homes and even in churches.” He says the problems with the police and court systems contribute to violence. “Poverty, alcohol and the socio-economic conditions also play a role. Young girls end up being victims of violence because they involve themselves with older men with money because they are starving. These men often abuse them,” said Majola.
Majola says that the solution is to equip women with skills so that they can be economically independent of abusive men. He also says that we have to shift the mindset of men, many of whom grew up in households where they saw their mothers being beaten up by their fathers and so think it is okay for them to do the same to their partners. “Households where the father dictated the terms of the house and the mother had no voice, reading a Bible where it is written that a man is the head of the house, watching men out-power women in Parliament - all this creates the image of male dominance. We have to change these things. We also have to give men skills, like plumbing and electrics, so that they can have dignity and play a more positive role in their family life.”
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