Saving South African marriages one at a time
Every six hours, a woman is killed by a husband or boyfriend, reports Amnesty International. How one counselor makes a difference.
Eldorado Park, South Africa
When she first came into the center, tired from the 45 minute walk in the heat, her face was flushed, but also black and blue. He had hit her, Charlotte Theron explained. Pummeled her with his fists and beat her with a stick.Skip to next paragraph
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Situated in the back of the local police station, the small Eldorado Park Family Crisis Center hears stories like this all the time. Whether clients are referred by the police, ordered to show up by the courts, or just walk in, independently, the procedure here is always the same. "How can we help you?" they ask. "Let us call your partner and talk to him too," they suggest. "Let's figure out options," they say.
Amnesty International reports that one woman in South Africa is killed by her husband or boyfriend every six hours. The overwhelmed police cannot and do not sufficiently heed all domestic dispute calls for help. And in those cases that do arrive in the equally overwhelmed courts, violent offenders are routinely let off with a slap on the wrist, deterring untold other women from ever complaining.
Marriage counseling is not, and cannot be, the only solution to domestic violence, stresses counselor Mona Ramlah. Nor can counseling fix the broader underlying factors contributing to the violence – poverty, unemployment, drugs, and the unresolved rage and inferiority complexes that are the legacies of apartheid. But it can, sometimes, help.
Ms. Ramlah has been counseling in this neighborhood, a poor township adjoining Soweto, for almost 20 years. Sometimes – especially in cases where there is a court order – couples will come in together. Otherwise, typically, a woman will come in alone, and Ramlah will then send a letter back home with her, asking that the spouse come for a meeting. They almost always do, she says – and that is when the work begins.
In most cases, she admits, she can't save the troubled marriages. The violence is too extreme, the miscommunication too great, the future seems too difficult. In those cases, Ramlah tries to steer the women toward the few options they have – a shelter for battered women, a relative who is able to take them in, a legal battle to seek financial support.
Sometimes, however, she, and the other therapists here, manage to salvage a relationship – influencing men to desist from violent behavior and helping couples reestablish a functional life together.
Couples usually come in for an hour session once a week, and can continue with the therapy for as long as they desire. Ramlah and her team work with the couples to first understand the causes for the violence. Sometimes drugs and alcohol are involved, other times cultural clashes are at play. Poverty, unemployment, and stress have a role, and often learned behavior at home is a factor.
Chocolate bars, three kids,and beatings
Charlotte and Hilton Theron met in church. She was 16, an orphan who had never been to school. He was lighter skinned, a mama's boy who worked for his uncle's upholstery business. "We just fell into each others arms. There was no explaining," he says today, 27 years later. "The first time you fall in love it's very easy. It's the staying together that is hard."
In the early days, he bought her chocolate bars and she washed and ironed his clothes, and it was as good – as good as things can be in a leaky shack, with no electricity, water, or toilets and no money. But by the time they got officially married a decade later, at the town hall, they already had three kids and a bad habit of fighting. "I was confused and angry. I had never lifted my hands before ... but I would slap her around because of all these funny stories," he says.
The "funny stories" were coming from Hilton's mother, who told her son that Charlotte was running around with other men. His mother never liked his choice of a bride, he admits. "She thought I could do better ... that I could find someone more educated, more beautiful. Someone with straighter hair," he says, in reference to his wife's blacker features. Charlotte cringes to hear him say it.