Don’t wash your dirty laundry in public.
“I used to sit up at night waiting for him to come home and beat me.”
What: Uses her position as “village mother” to work against violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Both Motshidisi’s daughter and her ex-husband died of AIDS. Since then she has talked and talked and talked about the disease - and about the violence. Slowly, people are beginning to respond.
Everyone knows Motshidisi’s story. Her mother left her three children with their grandmother. Their grandmother was not a kind person; she made the children work to earn money but did not feed them. When Motshidisi was eleven her grandmother grew tired of the children and sent them back to their mother, who had remarried and had three new children. Motshidisi’s step-father tried to force himself on her and when she told what had happened she was even more badly treated.
“I got married when I was 20, mainly to get away from home. My husband beat me almost from the first day. He knew I couldn’t go back home to my family.”
In the 24 years Motshidisi was married she gave birth to six children. Many other children were born in the village during this time, with Motshidisi’s husband as the father.
“Sometimes he lived somewhere else, sometimes here. I thought it was better he was here. It was better for the children too. When he was here we knew more or less what to expect. I used to sit up at night waiting for him to come home and beat me so I could go to bed afterwards.”
Her husband found out he had AIDS. Several of his mistresses had already died.
Finally she decided to get a divorce. Her son had started having problems at school. Motshidisi had to make a choice and her children supported her.
In 2007, after the divorce had come through, her husband found out he had AIDS. Several of his mistresses had already died. To date, seven women Motshidisi’s husband had been with have died from the disease. Others are undergoing treatment.
“I’m the only one who has escaped ...”
“He had 18 children altogether,” Motshidisi says drily. “They all came to the funeral. I was the one who cared for him at the end, even though we were divorced. He died here, in my house. God will judge him, not me.”
The year before Motshidisi filed for divorce, her 23-year-old daughter died from AIDS. That was when she made her mind up. The secrecy had to stop.
“I talked openly about the disease at the funeral. It was the first time anyone had done so in this village. We formed a support group for the sick and their relatives. Things started happening. We are working to encourage people to use a condom and to stick to one partner. And to stop abusing and raping their wives.”
It may be because of all the grief that Motshidisi has suffered – but she is widely respected in the village. Everyone knows what she has been through and is impressed by the way in which she lives her life. She is currently working with a project for orphans.
“People listen to me,” she says modestly.
Sometimes she gets angry with us, for example if she’s seen me drunk, but most of the time she listens and gives us good advice.
This is obvious in the village tavern, at the table with the empty beer bottles. A group of young men sits playing cards and talking under the shade of a tree. Most of them are unemployed. Motshidisi comes here at least once a week to talk to the lads.
“She is our good mother,” says Tshepiso and empties the big bottle of beer. “We can talk to her when we have problems. Sometimes she gets angry with us, for example if she’s seen me drunk, but most of the time she listens and gives us good advice.”
Motshidisi knows everyone in the village.
“Most of the people who are HIV positive are married,” she says. “We believe that around 30 per cent of all the adults in our area are infected. The infection is usually diagnosed when the woman is pregnant, because all pregnant women are tested. That makes people believe that the disease comes from the woman. I take every opportunity to educate them. I talk at all the funerals and tell them the facts. When people are given medicine and begin to look healthy again they think it’s all over and then they continue spreading the infection. I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Maternal deaths: 236 deaths per l00,000 births
Number of children/woman: 2.3 (2011)
Abortion legislation: Right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy depending entirely on the wishes of the woman. Thereafter up to the sixth month of pregnancy if there are special reasons, such as the health of the woman or an abnormality of the foetus. (2007)
Law against rape within marriage: Yes
Violence against women in close relationships: in 2010 almost 68,000 cases of sexual harassment were reported in a six-month period, most of them rape. It is claimed that almost 28 per cent of the male population have raped a woman or girl. 40 per cent of South African women stated in a report published by the WHO that their first sexual experience took place without their consent.