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Breaking the silence

Mary wears glasses — but they are badly broken. Her one leg has a very strange shape, and she limps. The leg has scars from beatings.

Who was it who broke Mary’s glasses and hurt her leg? It was not tsotsis, or some other enemy. It was her husband.

“Ja, he aimed a belt at me, and the buckle hit my glasses,” says Mary.

Busi is another woman who has a husband who beats her. He has beaten her for the past 16 years. She feels very alone with her troubles. She says: “The whole yard hears my screams. He says he will kill me one day and I believe this. No-one comes because they say it is trouble between husband and wife.”

Mary and Busi are not the only women who are beaten. Thousands and thousands of women are beaten by their husbands and boyfriends. These thousands of women live with their faces bruised and bodies battered. Trying to hide what their husbands do to them — and trying to hide the hurt inside them.


It is hard for women to talk about this problem — and when they do talk about it, many people do not care. They see nothing wrong with men who beat their wives. The beating of women is very much a hidden crime.

Is it not time that women broke the silence about this crime against them?


Women and men are not brought up as equals. Men everywhere are brought up to believe they are more important and better than women. And women are brought up to believe they are less important than men. And that it is their duty to serve men.

Lindiwe says, “Men believe they own women. They are jealous of their women looking at or being looked at by other men. Some men expect their wives or girlfriends to report to them when they go anywhere. Even when they go next door to borrow some milk. But these same men do not report to their wives about where they go or what they do.”

Some women say they get beaten up for going to sleep before their husbands come home. Or for attending a union meeting.

Mary says, “We were always taught it doesn’t matter what your husband does. My mother told me, ‘You see my child, you married him. You are married for better or for worse’.


Some people say that unemployment, alcohol, dagga and overcrowded housing cause men to beat women. But everybody has problems. Why should men be allowed to take out their problems on women?

Things like shebeens and poverty do make things worse. But they are not the root cause of the problem. As one woman said, “If you’ve had a few ‘shots’ and you beat up your wife, you do it because you had it in mind anyway.”

This is true because it is not only drunk men or poor men who beat their wives. All kinds of men beat their wives. Rich men. Workers. Unemployed. White men and black men. All kinds of normal, everyday men beat their wives. And all kinds of women get beaten. Even women who are married to comrades.


There is an organisation in Johannesburg that helps women who have been beaten. It is called People Opposed to Women Abuse (POWA).

POWA says: “When we speak to women, they feel very alone. They live inside themselves. This beating up may have happened for years and years.

“It is important that women know that it happens to lots and lots of women. It happens because men are trying to tell women that they are in control.”

POWA wants to help women get control of their lives. Women’s bodies get beaten. But women’s feelings about themselves and what they are worth also get a terrible beating. And sometimes that hurt inside lasts forever.

Children learn from their parents. Men who beat their wives are teaching their sons to be batterers. And women who put up with it are teaching their daughters to put up with it.


Most women struggle to find an answer to this question. But many say there is the tradition that women must stay with their husbands. Also many women rely on their husbands for money.

And many women say: “We have nowhere to go. The townships are already overcrowded.”

Even if a woman can find a place to stay, it is not easy to start a new life. There is the worry of a job. Of children’s schooling. Of who will look after young children. And the fear of being alone.

Also, for some women not everything is bad about the man. There is some love. And a hope that the beatings will stop. A woman may want to leave, but she may be scared the man will come looking for her.

After years of beatings many women start to believe they are worth nothing. They feel guilty. They start to believe they have done something to deserve a beating. It seems like a trap with no escape.


It helps to talk to someone you can trust. Talking helps you to see things clearly. It is a good idea to find out about the law. Then a woman can get advice on what it is possible to do. There are places where people will listen to and help beaten women. There is POWA in Jo’burg (011-642- 4345), Rape Crisis in Durban (031- 232323) and Cape Town (021- 479762), and some family and child welfare offices. These people don’t tell a woman what to do. They help her to understand her position and to make her own decision.

If a woman wants, she can charge her husband with assault. She has to lay the charge at a police station. If he is found guilty, he may have to pay a fine.

It is not easy for a woman to go to the police. She may be too afraid of her husband. She may not have decided to leave him. She wants him to stop beating her, but she may not want him to go to jail, or lose his job. She may have no money of her own, and need his wages.


Often the police will say it is only a husband/wife problem. The police can say they don’t want to interfere. As one woman said: “The police will wait until you have been killed before they will charge the man.”

But a woman who is beaten by her husband can get a ‘Peace Order’ from the Magistrate’s Court. If she reports that he has beaten her again after she got the Peace Order, both of them must go to court. If the court finds the husband guilty, he faces a two year jail sentence with no choice of a fine.

A woman who is beaten by her husband can also get a divorce. She can apply for legal aid. If the court then finds that her husband has beaten her, then she has free legal help. She can sue her husband for maintenance for herself and the children.

If a woman decides she wants to leave home, she can stay at a shelter for three months. There are shelters in Johannesburg and Cape Town. This helps a woman to start building her own life. But after three months she has to find her own way in the world.


It is not only women who are beaten who must do something about this problem. All women can do something. An injury to one is an injury to all. Women can help each other by talking about the problem. They can help each other to break the silence. They must talk about ways to stop men beating women.

Women must not only talk about the problem — they must help each other wherever they can. Like giving women who are running away from a beating or possible killing a place to stay. Or help with looking after children. Women must give each other support.


In a poor part of a country called Peru, women have decided that they have had enough of being beaten by their men. So they got together and made a plan.

Each woman decided to carry a whistle. When her husband comes to beat her she blows the whistle. All the other women come running to tier house. And they deal with the man!

One man wanted his wife to leave their home with her five children, so that he could bring his lover to live with him. The wife refused. So he kept beating her. All the women took action.

These women said: “One night when he was beating his wife up, we got hold of him, stripped him naked and hung a sign around his neck saying, ‘I will never abuse my wife again.’ After that he left and has not bothered her since.”


Men get away with beating their wives and girlfriends because they believe they have the right to do what they like to women. But now we are living in times when everybody is struggling for the right to a decent life. Where people are treated as equals. Where women are treated like equals, not like animals.

The beating of women will not stop until women break their silence. It will not stop until men treat women as equals. It will not stop until women come together to talk and to organise. Women beating must be taken up as an issue in all organisations. The beating of women by men will not stop until women organise to stop it.

This story comes from Speak — a magazine that deals with womens’ issues and problems. We have shortened the story and changed it a little here and there. Thank you Speak for an important story. May you go from strength to strength!

NEW WORDS bruised — the marks that you are left with after a beating battered — a battered person is somebody who is the victim of beatings, insults and bad treatment. abuse — to treat somebody or something badly maintenance — the money a father pays to his family every month if he leaves them. shelter — a place of safety


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