He walked in one Friday evening. He was unhappy about something. He inquired about food. It was still cooking.
“Why is food not ready yet? You were off, mos?”
Because I have a life, I still think of what I should have said. Maybe I was cleaning the house. Hell, maybe I was resting and reading a book because a day off is just that, a day off.
Instead, I explained my whole day in a tone of voice that those who know me now would be surprised I am capable of. A voice filled with apology for any wrongs perceived.
There had been verbal abuse before. On this day, it went further. He pulled my hair — I had twists then — and banged my head against the wall. He punched me and, when I managed to free myself, I went to lock myself in the bedroom.
This was not happening to me, I thought then. But I called the police.
He would spend the weekend in a cell and, when he came out, I had whatever items of his clothing were in my home packed and waiting for him. The line had been crossed. What love had existed had died — and I was lucky.
I was lucky that I had my own place and my own income. So I did not need to stay with him for the sake of ensuring the child we both shared DNA with was looked after or because I did not have anywhere else to go.
Not so for my friend, Fatuma.
Unemployed, beautiful, married at 19 and the mother of two by the age of 24, she saw the husband who had been a carefree boyfriend become someone she feared. If she dared to take part in a conversation when his men friends visited, he would give her a smile that never quite reached his eyes.
The questions would be asked when the guests left. Why was she, a married woman, Mrs Somebody, flirting with his single friends? Why did she not respect him? And the fists would rain down on her body, calculatingly avoiding her face.
She tried leaving once. She left with their children one day after school. But he followed her to her parents’ house. He asked his uncle and aunts to make heartfelt apologies on his behalf. He could not live without her and their children. They were taking away his life. He had learnt his lesson and it would never happen again.
She went home and he welcomed her back with more punches.
If her life had been a nightmare before she left, it became hell when she returned. No longer allowed to step out of her home, Fatuma’s husband, a businessperson, would take the children to school and leave her locked in the house.
She needed flour or tomatoes? She had to draw up a list before her husband left home. She had become a prisoner in her own home.
It took the death of her brother, whose funeral she could not miss, for her and her children to be able to see her family again. It was here that an aunt, after talking to her and hearing what had occurred, made a plan. The aunt took her and her children and put them in a halfway house where she would be safe. From there, she got her life together again.
Not many partners or wives who have been at the receiving end of violence from their partners are as lucky as Fatuma or me. And, yes, even with the violence we both experienced, we managed to get out alive. Other women are not so lucky.
Despite many African governments having signed and ratified that bible for African feminists, the Maputo Protocol, which, in article 3, affords women the right to dignity, little action is taken on the ground about violence against women.
Regardless of women loudly asking for help, the majority who survive violence are dependent on organisations such as the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network and its partner organisations in 18 countries on the continent.
Notwithstanding many of our governments having ministries that are supposed to care for the welfare of women, few of those who beat and rape (marital or otherwise) women are ever prosecuted.
Of course, those ministries themselves cannot really be taken seriously when they are often manned by phallic women whose role is to protect patriarchy.
March 8 was International Women’s Day. As we reflect on that day, let us yet again question our governments about the well-meaning documents they sign to protect us but do not act on. If women are supposed to be protected under the protocol from all forms of violence, what score sheet can they give us to show how many prosecutions have taken place since they ratified that all-important document? Furthermore, what safe spaces have they created to ensure that the women who are most vulnerable and are at the receiving end of violence can escape to?
Anything else is to treat women’s lives as a joke and we will continue having assaults, femicides and rapes, with the perpetrators having little reason to fear. Indeed, all our countries could be accused of violence against women because of their inaction. Are women’s lives worth anything to our states?
Zukiswa Wanner is a Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Studies fellow