Women who put other women’s safety first
Here are a few examples of women who have put the lives and safety of other women foremost on their agenda.
Rolene Miller started Mosaic in 1993 because she realised that there were no groups working with abused women in underprivileged areas. “Other organisations working with women charged them according to a scale, and I was upset that indigent, abused women could not receive free services to help them combat abuse,” she recalls.
In 1995 this social worker, remedial teacher, and Lifeline counsellor set about training unskilled women from targeted areas in social-work skills so that they could educate, counsel, and provide services to help women in 33 communities put an end to abuse. “In those days, abuse was not spoken about, and abused women felt the stigma and shame of being abused,” Miller says.
Mosaic is unique in that in 1999, it was the first organisation in the Western Cape to start working with domestic violence complaints directly at the courts.
“It gives me enormous pleasure when abused clients become empowered, and tell us that Mosaic has helped them to survive and flourish. To change women’s lives makes me humbly proud,” Miller says.
Conceding that it is difficult to prevent the “deeply-rooted” scourge, she says Mosaic can change lives only one woman at a time. “When she becomes empowered and emerges from victimhood, she will pass on the skills and information to others,” she says.
Last year, Miller was honoured by Parliament for her “outstanding contribution… to the development of advocacy for women and girls’ rights and health issues in South Africa”.
Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack perceived a need in the Jewish community for an anonymous and confidential helpline for victims of domestic abuse. And so in 2012, Koleinu was born.
“It’s very difficult for someone to identify themselves. There’s a lot of shame that they have to break through, and it’s quite humiliating to go for help,” Hendler says. “With other resources, you have to go into an office, look across the table, and meet someone’s eye.”
In Koleinu’s case, however, victims still get a listening ear as well as the help and referrals that they need, while still remaining anonymous. The support service is based on the global model of Rape Crisis, staffed by lay people who are trained as telephonic responders with basic counselling skills.
The trained life coach says there has been “some level of denial” that abuse is as prevalent as it is in our community, more particularly from middle-aged to older people. “In Joburg, abuse probably runs equally across all the different strata of Jewish society,” she says.
Shockingly, the majority of Koleinu’s cases now deal with child sexual abuse, something she says is “a reflection of what’s going on in society”, pointing out that “it wasn’t what we expected”.
An increased awareness of Koleinu’s service, coupled with greater focus on the topic including on social media, has resulted in the organisation fielding a greater number of calls. “Hopefully it’s a little easier for people to come forward,” she says.
In spite of the devastating personal effects the “very dark” work can have on one, Hendler finds it gratifying, saying, “You really are helping at the coalface, sometimes even saving lives. We’re involved in prevention, education, raising awareness, and being activists. In a way, that counters the darkness because we’re hopefully turning it into some light.”
The group has conducted “a fortune” of training sessions for rabbis on domestic violence and sexual abuse, she says.
Hendler says that with regard to woman abuse, physical violence is “less regular” than emotional and verbal abuse, which she says is “really, really common” in Jewish homes, including financial and spiritual abuse.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to give women the power to recognise abuse, manage it, and when necessary, get themselves out of those relationships, and not go back.”
Professor Bonita Meyersfeld is an Associate Professor of Law at Wits Law School. She is the founder of Lawyers Against Abuse, which fights for the rights of women and child victims and survivors of gender-based violence, ensuring that they get the best legal and psychosocial support. All the work is done pro bono.
As for what drew her to this line of work, Meyersfeld says, “It was an accumulation of factors, but mostly I felt that this particular form of harm was something I couldn’t get my mind around.
“We know how terrible it is, and that it should stop. It’s occurred throughout history, and is set to continue to occur throughout the foreseeable future. What are we doing wrong?
“I can understand the oppression of children, because they don’t have their own power. Adults are supposed to have their own power, and that’s non-existent, so for me, there was an incongruence that I couldn’t get my head around.
“All my human-rights work – the fact that I went into work around social justice – is rooted in the twin experiences of Holocaust survivors [her grandparents] plus living in apartheid South Africa.”
Meyersfeld describes her work assisting women and children as “sometimes devastating, sometimes fulfilling, mostly like a constant battle against the tide. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It is a fundamental part of my work, and has been for more than 20 years, but it’s never, ever, stopped breaking my heart.”