Trigger Warning: This article contains sensitive narration that may trigger one with similar experiences.

The #16DaysNotEnoughCampaign shares the personal experiences of women who have gone through subtle abuses like gaslighting, crazy-making, pathological lying, excuses, and hypocrisy which has been normalised in our societies. ACTIVATE! Supports the fight against gender-based violence. This is the raw experience of a woman in her own words.

(Author wishes to remain anonymous)

Ndizithini, ndizithini?

Hlala phez’kwazo!

Ezindaba zelikhaya?

Hlala phez’kwazo!

This is a song that the Xhosa people sing at wedding ceremonies and other celebrations. The lead singer asks the question and the crowd responds. This is a woman asking the crowd what she should do with the scandals of the home that she married into, the crowd responds “sit on top of them”. From as far back as I can recall, women have been taught to hide the scandalous things that happen in their marriages. Her signature on the marriage certificate is also a declaration that she will ‘hang in there’ and hide all scandals. Whatever happens, she is not going to expose her husband’s and her new family’s bad behaviours to any outsider. Even if that bad behaviour is to her detriment. She will not go back to her father because, as the Xhosa saying goes, “ingcwaba lomfazi lisemzini” (a woman’s grave lies at her in-laws). This is a dramatized emphasis of the wedding vows “till death do us apart”. In our communities, a divorced woman has failed as a woman. This is probably why most women don’t leave their abusive marriages. She stays in there and takes the blows, because leaving would mean that she has failed as a woman.

My aunt was married for 17 years. In all of her years of marriage, she was only happy on the first year, she tells me. After the first year, things turned sour. It is almost as if by marrying her, her husband had been given authority to do with her as he pleased. He was controlling and abusive. Not in the physical way, no. He wouldn’t dare. This man was a leader in his community, the last thing he needed was a wife walking around with bruises on her face. He had a reputation to uphold. But the burden on my aunt was heavy.

There were demeaning comments, accusations of cheating, death threats and absolutely no financial support. My aunt lived with this man for 17 years. She endured this abuse for 16 years; and for 16 years, nobody knew. She, like the obedient little wife, sat on top of the scandals that were unfolding in her home. She took the advice that her mother had given her on her wedding day, wa nyamezela (and hung in there). She is not the only one.

After 16 years of living in an abusive relationship, she finally got the courage to leave. Her exit was not as simple as telling her husband that she was leaving, she had to sneak out of her own home. One day, when her husband was out to visit one of the many women he was having an affair with, she left. She ran for her life and the mental wellbeing of her children.

Even as she narrated her frightening story to them, her friends kept advising her to go back to her husband. “Every woman goes through stuff, sisi, that’s not enough reason to leave”. What scares me the most is the fact that these women, the friends, started narrating similar experiences yet they kept telling her to go back. These women who have given up on happiness to hold on to broken marriages didn’t see anything wrong with what my aunt’s husband had been doing to her for over a decade. These women will give up anything to make sure that the community didn’t see them as failures. They are not going to let the world see their pain.

It’s sad when women want to own statements that are designed to oppress them. I saw on Facebook, the other day, one of my friends had posted one such comment. I quote, “A strong woman can be emotionally in pain, mentally stressed, & financially broke, BUT physically smile & say…I’m fine”. My friend goes on to caption this quote, “A strong woman is me’’. This is a young woman who has also gone through hell at the hands of a man, and she still accepts that she cannot be vulnerable or show weakness. She still thinks that her strength lies in her ability to hide her pain.

Men have used similar quotes to bully women into submission. The manipulation. The guilt trips. The need to control. Women are taught to feel guilty for breaking under the pressure that men put them through. Breaking would make them less of “imbokodo”. And what woman does not want to be a full blown mbokodo? In a world where women are taught that having someone pick her as a wife is an achievement, every woman wants to be imbokodo. Those are the only women who make it down the aisle, iimbokodo. Those are the women men want to marry.

I think that the time for iimbokodo should come to an end. We need a breed of woman who can say #EnoughIsEnough even if that means being seen as less of imbokodo. The time has come, the time is today. The time is every day, not just on the 16 days that are set aside to fight against gender-based-violence. Let us redefine a strong woman because, honestly, a strong woman does not keep it in.

My aunt left her abusive marriage, she is now the happiest woman I know. She is a free woman. In my eyes, she’s also one of the strongest women alive.


ACTIVATE! is a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good across South Africa. Connecting youth who have the skills, sense of self and spark to address tough challenges and initiate innovative and creative solutions that can reshape our society.

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Twitter: @ActivateZA

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Website: www.activateleadership.co.za

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