Cape Town -
When Rosemary Smith’s* husband threatened to douse her in petrol and set her alight on a frightening August night in 2009, she realised it was time for her and her three children to escape the abusive marriage.
hen the beaten and bruised Smith arrived at the Ravensmead police station the following day to report her husband, she was given an invitation to a Women’s Day event in Cape Town.
“That was the start of my journey. Only afterwards did I realise the importance of Women’s Day - a day to remind us of the strength of women,” said Smith.
“I didn’t know what would happen to my children but I knew I had to get out of my marriage and away from my husband. I ran with my kids and never looked back.”
For 18 years she had endured what she described as physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of a man she was too afraid to leave because she and her children were financially dependent on him. “I survived whatever he threw at me, for the sake of our children.”
She said he raped her several times during the marriage. “He would be particularly violent when he came back from a drug binge. On several occasions he stripped me down to my underwear and threw me out of the house. He said: ‘If you don’t want to sleep with me that’s fine, I have two daughters to sleep by my side.’ My then- 14-year-old son had to watch over his little sisters to make sure they weren’t raped.
“Many women convince themselves to stay for the sake of the children but they’re lying to themselves. Their children are silent witnesses to the abuse. I was a child of abuse as well and to an extent thought it was normal. Only when I left did I realise the emotional and psychological damage done to my children.”
After Smith fled her home she entered the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children. There she found she was not alone and abuse did not happen only in poor homes.
“I was shocked to find lawyers’ wives and other people who I thought could never have problems like abuse. We shared our experiences and supported each other. Some were rich women who had high walls around their homes but instead of a palace it was a prison. Many went back to their partners after their physical wounds healed only to be back in the centre days later.”
Smith and her children spent two years in the centre, where she learned many skills and empowered herself.
“I used to iron for people and do any odd jobs for money but it was mostly for experience. I had never worked because my husband wouldn’t allow it. The other women used to ask me why I did those little things but it was exhilarating for me to learn all these new things.”
Smith studied homecare and through the shelter had a chance to film a documentary via the University of Cape Town. “To walk the halls of a university like UCT was further acknowledgment that I could be independent and enjoy discovering who I am instead of seeing myself as a victim.”
She filmed a second documentary on her own, on life at the shelter, and because of a newspaper article, was offered accommodation for herself and her children.
Smith continued her studies in homecare before volunteering at the Mitchells Plain Network Opposing Abuse organisation last year. She was offered a job there as a cleaner, learnt the ins and outs of the administration system and then became a counsellor.
“I help both women and men report cases of abuse and provide them with support whenever they need it and accompany them to court.”
“You have to balance being understanding and supporting but still being firm and advise them correctly, even if it’s against their own wishes.
“I had one woman whose son was extremely smart and had so much potential, but he was also filled with anger because of the situation at home. She wanted to go back to her husband because he started treating her nicely, but that’s the ‘honeymoon phase’ before the abuse resumes. I understand the fear - but I’m living proof that you can be free.”
* Not her real name
- Sunday Argus