A tough road ahead
Even though they had extricated themselves, things were not rosy. The next two years were fraught with uncertainty. Sandra and her daughter would shift house for a total of seven times, bouncing from refuging at her childhood friends’ homes to living in rental flats. Her daughter also made the transition from kindergarten to primary school. Even as her ex was physically out of their lives at this point, he still had them in a snare wrought of fear. ‘Once, he showed up at my daughter’s school and withdrew her from her classes. I had to take her out of school for a few months. Thankfully, despite everything she had go to through, my daughter still managed to excel in her studies.’ Sandra does not think that her ex would have downright hurt her daughter. But he sees a child as merely a plaything, his recklessness alarming. ‘Once, when she was only two years old, he left her in the swimming pool alone and headed back to the house without her. She had not learnt how to swim yet. I had to drop everything I was doing and rush to save her before she drowned. My daughter also told me that he once had a can of beer in the car while driving her. I don’t feel safe having him around my daughter.’
Sandra was mired in what she describes as ‘acrimonious’ court proceedings. When it came to the division of the matrimonial assets, Sandra says her ex withheld the money and refused to pay up. At her PPO trial, opposing lawyers poked holes at her testimonies during exhausting cross examinations. ‘It was a case of “he said, she said”.’ Accusations of her fabricating the stories of abuse flew. Besides presenting her medical reports, she had to get three doctors to testify and corroborate her claims. One aspect that became contentious was visitation rights. ‘I had to plead with my daughter: could you please just go and see your daddy and save me the headache?’ But emerging from every visit, her daughter’s solemn countenance would change the moment she fell into her arms. Tears, released at last from their bonds, fell. ‘She said to me: “Mommy, please just run away.” That’s how much she feared her father. I knew I had to fight for the care and control of her in court.’ Yet this shadow of fear her daughter lived in was not so easy to prove. During the counselling sessions held as part of court mediation, her daughter appeared to be calm, confident even, and was not visibly upset when in the presence of her father. ‘That was her conditioned behaviour — the behaviour of being scared into silence — which was of her father’s doing. Even my own lawyer didn’t believe me when I said she was afraid of her father. And how do I prove that in a court of law? Bruises can be documented in medical reports as evidence, but not feelings or reactions.’
The draining court proceedings, from PPO, care and control to asset division, as well as appeals to the High Court, took a mental toll on Sandra, whittling her ability to work. Very soon, her lawyer’s fees piled up and she could not afford one; she had to represent herself in court. Struggling to make ends meet, she went to Star Shelter, a secular temporary refuge for women and their children who are survivors of domestic violence.
Her time at the shelter was nothing but ‘wonderful’. By now, Sandra’s support system had dismantled: her erstwhile inner circle comprised common friends of her ex, and all of them took his side. ‘Because of their loyalty to him as a friend, and because they were all serving in the same ministry, during our divorce they all sided with him. Some knew of his wrongdoing and tolerated it. In my experience, a lot of people do the same: it is not easy to preserve and stay true to your own values.’ Even her closest friend — a mutual friend of her ex — a practising lawyer familiar with the laws laid out in the Women’s Charter act and who knew of the severity of their situation, pledged support for her ex, helping him to draft an affidavit to refute her statements. ‘I was cut off from the church. I had lost my community of friends. Home was a thousand miles away. And stepping into the shelter, being in the company of other women in similar plights, it was the first time since my divorce that I had been accepted by a community. They celebrated me for who I am. My time at the shelter planted new seeds of confidence that grew with time.’
At the shelter, Sandra journeyed with other women who were facing their own uphill battles. Some have lost the rights to care and control of their children. Most have had their self-esteem chiselled away. Even when a survivor is emancipated from a domestic violence situation, her vindictive abuser can still sink his hooks into her. Lies can be wrought about her, allegations can be made to tar her name. Thus, the issuance of a PPO is so much more than just receiving a piece of paper, Sandra says. It is psychologically uplifting. An impartial court has considered all evidence presented by both sides, and finds in favour of the survivor. ‘It gives us a ray of hope that we can move on from our ordeals and have a fair chance at a new life, free from the clutches of our abusers.’
Slowly and surely, her time at the shelter allowed Sandra to pick up the pieces. Thanks to a steady stream of projects, her finances were no longer in the red. Six months after she entered the shelter, she gave up her and her daughter’s bed to another woman and child in need.