My experience with the triad of gender-based violence, HIV and sexual and reproductive health

*This post is a transcript and was translated from isiXhosa

On Friday last week, a friend shared the link to a Facebook live chat and suggested I join. I noticed that the chat had something to do with gender-based violence (GBV), so I decided to give it a go. When it ended, I was triggered because of my past but also inspired to share my story. Someone might be going through what I went through and I want my voice to be heard.

Today, as the world focuses its attention on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and many countries have put in place lockdown measures, I want to raise awareness about the surge of GBV among my peers.

I grew up in a village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa and was raised by my grandmother while my parents were working in Cape Town. My upbringing was normal, and my parents did their best to provide the necessities. In my teenage years I moved to Cape Town to live with my parents. I made new friends in the city and life was certainly different from what I was used to. In my neighbourhood I was labelled as the ‘good girl’ because I was committed to going to church, not partying, not drinking alcohol and not even dating.

Often my friends would say I was boring, that I needed to live a little, go out partying and on a date. I eventually gave in to the pressure and joined this group of friends who were considered ‘cool and vibey’. I quickly met someone, we hit things off and started dating. He was known in the neighbourhood as the ‘bad boy’ because he was a player and had many girlfriends. We dated for six years—six long years of hell. My friends warned me about his bad boy behaviour, but I was deeply in love with him. He cheated a lot and, when I confronted him, he would get emotionally abusive, physically violent and beat me to a pulp. He didn’t even care who found out: he would beat me in front of everyone in the neighbourhood and threatened to kill me on many violent occasions. Because I loved him, I wouldn’t leave him and stayed in the relationship.

One day I went to my local clinic to access contraceptives. While I was there, I decided to test for HIV. The results came back positive. I told my boyfriend and his only response was to tell me that he knew all along about his HIV positive status. He said he didn’t want to disclose his status early on in our relationship because he thought I was going to leave him. Even after this revelation, I stayed in the relationship—not only because I loved him, but also because I was scared that he was going to beat me if I left him. I thought of reporting the abuse to the police, but I was discouraged by the fact that the police had failed to take similar cases involving violence among young couples seriously.

Eventually, I gathered the courage to leave him and moved on with my life. While I was with him, I was rejected by my family because of my changed, ‘bad girl’, behaviour. My father would not even eat food I cooked, let alone stand to be in the same room with me. I felt lonely, and as a result later ended up dating a man 20 years older than me. I must admit I was happy; I had that sense of belonging when I was with him. He was almost like the father figure I had longed for. At the age of 22 I fell pregnant and told him. He told me to get rid of the baby because he was not ready to be a father. I was also not working and had dropped out from school; how could I take care of the baby? It turned out there were two other young women who were impregnated by him. As I ended things with the father of my baby, I was more determined to take full responsibility and raise her on my own. I never disclosed my status to my family, until my mother accidentally found my HIV treatment. We had a talk about my HIV status, pregnancy and other life challenges I was facing. This was a breakthrough because my mother felt that she had neglected me for so long and started providing the motherly support I needed.

That’s when I turned my life around, found a job and was able to provide for my baby. Sadly, my employment ended and I’m once again looking for work. I am now 25 years old and reflecting on my journey. Before I became involved in an abusive relationship, became infected with HIV and had a baby, I had dreams. I wanted to be a gospel and Afropop singer and a social worker. Now my life is at a standstill, and I feel stuck.

I want to share my story with other young women out there so that they can learn from my experiences and hopefully be able to make better choices. I am grateful that my family is now supportive of me and my child. Their support is very critical as it is giving me hope, courage and determination to pursue my dreams. Taking part in young women’s community initiatives, such as Emthonjeni Counseling & Training, has also provided me with a safe space where I feel free to speak, and gain confidence and self-awareness.

I am a survivor of GBV, I am never giving up!

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