Marilyn Jacobs* was in an empty field with her two young children, a plastic bottle of water and rat poison when she realised she needed to get away from the man who had turned her life into a living hell.
Today she’s called “auntie” by the women who have found refuge at Manenberg’s Saartjie Baartman Centre, and while Marilyn isn’t their blood relative, she’s part of a disturbingly large family of women who have been through their own personal trauma at the hands of an abuser.
The bond Marilyn shares with these women is forged on an anvil of shared torment: she survived two years of physical, verbal and emotional abuse by her ex-husband and was ready to kill herself and her children before ultimately freeing herself from his control.
Marilyn grew up in Kensington with her grandmother and her younger sister. Her mother was a single parent working a full-time job. Marilyn matriculated in 1993, and that was also the year she fell pregnant. In 1996, she moved to Hanover Park to live with her aunt and met the man she thought was the love of her life.
She fell pregnant with her second child, and in April that year she married and moved in with her husband and his family, and gave birth later that year.
“He treated me like a princess when we dated,” Marilyn says. “I went out with him, and he gave me a good life. He gave me whatever I asked for.”
It was while she was pregnant with her second child that the abuse started.“I never knew that there was a name for it. I never realised that I was being abused. I just thought that I had to be obedient to him,” Marilyn says.
The first sign was her husband’s continuous jealousy. He wouldn’t allow her to interact with anyone and often kept her from her family.
“I saw the jealousy as love, not as a sign of abuse. He started cutting me with a blade, hit me with a hammer, didn’t care that I was pregnant. I went to the police station many times, but they said that it is household problems, and they cannot get involved. They drove me back to my house. I had no one to talk to; his mother and his family took his side. He didn’t allow me to work either.”
The abuse continued for two years. The turning point came one day when Marilyn came home to find her husband’s father sitting with her daughter on his lap. The child said her grandfather had touched her private parts.
Marilyn took her daughter to the doctor who confirmed that someone had touched her but there had been no penetration.
“I went back home and told him about it, and he hit me black and blue because I had accused his father of touching my daughter.”
on January 29, 1999, Marilyn decided she had had enough.
“I told myself I cannot do it anymore. One Sunday, I told him I was going to the shop to buy things to make food. I went to Foodworld and bought Ratex. I went to a field with my children and knocked on people’s doors for water. I thought I would just kill myself and my children.
“I sat there with the Ratex and the water and looked at my kids, and that’s when I got a wake-up call. I thought my kids did nothing wrong, why should they die. I finally got up and walked to the police station, and told them what happened. They took me and my children to the Carehaven shelter in Bridgetown. That was where I learnt about all the types of abuse that I had experienced. I worked in the creche there and gained some self worth. I asked people if I could clean for them, and the social worker offered me a job at her house. My focus changed to my children, it wasn’t about him anymore; it was about my children.”
Marilyn says her husband often gave her money but would then ask for it back, and she was too scared to refuse him.
He often asked to have sex, and even when she said no he still went ahead and slept with her. At the time, she didn’t realise he was raping her.
On May 27, 1999 she and a group of women helped to clean the Saartjie Baartman Centre before its opening. On June 15, she went for an interview at the centre and got the job.
Later that year she divorced her husband.
She now helps to see to the basic needs of the women at the centre and marvels the changes in them as they slowly rebuild their lives. “Their growth is amazing. They take care of themselves, do their hair, and knowing that I had a part in that is rewarding enough,” Marilyn says.
The centre has also helped her with her own journey of healing.
“I came to the centre fresh out of my situation. I would get very emotional sometimes when I heard the stories of some of the women: it was too close to home, but I attended workshops to empower myself and understand what happened to me. I’ve learnt so much from this place. That is where my passion for helping people started, because of working in this environment,” Marilyn says.
“I don’t tell many people my story, but I always tell them I understand what they are saying. If there is just one woman that is in the same situation and reads this, she will realise what is happening to her.”
*Names have been changed.