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.

Danna Harman
: Charlotte and Hilton Theron have been married 27 years, but until recently it was a relationship marked by violence.
Danna Harman
Marriage Counselor: After losing her own child, Mona Ramlah found that by helping others, she, too, began to heal.

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.

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.

They fought, violently, for years. If the neighbors bothered to call the police, an officer might come break it up. Otherwise, Hilton would just continue to smack his wife and kids. One day his eldest son was badly burnt by scalding oil "by mistake," Hilton says, "when we were all fighting."

Charlotte decided to get help. "I just wanted to talk. I didn't have any friends. No one I could speak to," she says.

Healing from the inside out

Ramlah's life changed in a flash one Christmas, when, on a family trip to visit her brother, a truck rammed into the car, killing her nine-year-old daughter Rehana instantly. Ramlah, a happily married secretary at an accounting firm, just gave up on life.

"I left my job. I stayed at home. I did not feel like carrying on. I didn't care. I was traumatized ... I questioned God," she says. "I loved her so much, but He took my child away from me.... I felt there must have been a reason for that." She stayed home for two years, mourning.

And then, one day, she got up and started volunteering at a food pantry. In the course of this work she learned that many poor children had needs that went far beyond food and shelter – many were living in violent, abusive families. And that's when Ramlah decided to dedicate her time to counseling parents – to try, she muses, to turn them into the sort of parents she and her husband had been denied the chance of being to Rehana. Slowly, helping others began to heal her, she says, "from the inside out."

With a fresh counseling degree in hand, she established the Eldorado Park Family Crisis Center, a one stop emotional rehabilitation drop-in center. "If I had not had personal tragedy I would not be here," says Ramlah. "Things happen for a reason. That has proven itself to me. I never in my whole life thought I was a person to work in the community. I had everything."

Many of the women Ramlah counsels are uneducated and poor and feel they have no choice but to stay in their abusive relationships. But Ramlah informs them otherwise: "I feel in today's life we have choices," she says, adding that during the apartheid years there was no recourse to law, no shelters, and no one to help these women, but today things are different.

"I tell these women that I don't feel sorry for them. It is up to them to make the right choices. They have the options today."

Hard truths and Saturday dates

It has been four years since Charlotte and Hilton began counseling. For almost two of those, they went to the Crisis Center every Saturday. There, they were forced to listen to one another, and hear some hard truths. Hilton was an alcoholic, and was using drugs, and he needed to deal with that first and foremost. Charlotte, in turn, needed to learn how not to bait him – how to take a deep breath before criticizing and pointing out his failings.

"What I can say is, we came to our senses. For the sake of the kids, we had to accept each other like we are," says Hilton, who eventually turned to a drug counseling group at the center and got involved in his church's rehab program. "We are [adults] already and don't have a future. But they have a future. I don't want my sons to end up in jail ... or beating their wives."

"Just talking was a relief," adds Charlotte. "It hurt me to hear his position but I was quiet and I learned that when we start fighting I must be calm and understand his stresses." These days, when they argue, Charlotte tries to leave the scene and walk around the yard. "Only later, I go talk about it, and I try to calm us both down. I say 'you are wrong. Now apologize.' But I say it quietly."

Hilton has not hit her in two years and claims he does not drink or take any drugs. She says she loves him and is happy they have stayed together. They no longer go for regular sessions at the center, but do keep in touch, dropping by on occasion when they want to talk about specific problems.

And, these days, on Saturdays, if they can afford it, they take a shared taxi to the Southgate shopping mall, and have a date. They window shop at the clothes stores, maybe get the special at Chicken Lickin and sit down together. They are, says Charlotte, "doing OK."

"Counseling helped me not to give up," she says. "You get on your knees and pray to the lord to hear you ... And then you get on the road and reach out to a person to talk to."

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