50-year-old Thembi* came to LvA in April 2018 for help after her estranged husband, George*, doused their shack with paraffin and set it alight, with Thembi and her children trapped inside. This was not the first time George had done this. Throughout their 28-year marriage, George would become physically violent and then try to set the house alight using paraffin. In fact, George was out on bail for a different criminal offence when this incident took place. LvA accompanied Thembi to the police station and reported the incident to the detective branch commander who assisted in taking Thembi’s statement and effecting arrest.
Over the following months, Thembi faced tremendous pressure from George’s family to resolve the matter within the family. At the time, Thembi’s daughter was in the process of initiating her customary marriage. For the marriage to proceed, members of George’s family would need to engage in lobola negotiations with the groom’s family. George’s family informed Thembi that they refused to participate in negotiations unless she withdrew her criminal case against George and apologised to him for “airing the family’s dirty laundry in public.”All these incidents triggered Thembi’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which she had developed as a result of years of ongoing abuse.
When Thembi first came to LvA, she had lost all hope and believed her life would not have any positive outcomes. She was unable to go to work due to illness and was prescribed 16 tablets daily to cope. Thembi’s criminal case against George was also taking strain on her health as the justice system repeatedly failed her. The investigating officer assigned to the case repeatedly told LvA that the docket was “lost.” Unsurprisingly, the docket was “found” shortly after LvA reported the matter to the detective branch commander, however, critical evidence was missing from the docket. At that point, Thembi expressed that she did not have the strength to fight for justice because everyone just hurt and betrayed her. She decided to take unpaid leave from work to give therapy a chance. LvA’s drama therapist formulated a treatment plan for Thembi to find ways to cope in her challenges and began seeing her several times per week. Drama Therapy was applied by using movement therapy premised on Mindfulness Philosophy. Through this practice, Thembi was given an opportunity to accept things in her life that she could not change and focus on things that she could change.
At the same time, LvA’s legal team continued to support her throughout her criminal case. When the matter was finally placed on the court roll, the prosecutor assigned to the case pressured Thembi to mediate saying that there was insufficient evidence to support a criminal charge. The prosecutor stated that the only possible criminal charge would be ‘malicious damage to property,’ however, because Thembi and George were married in community of property, George was effectively destroying his own property when he set it alight. LvA argued that the charge should be ‘attempted murder’ because George made sure to trap Thembi and her children inside the shack before setting it on fire. When the prosecutor refused to budge, LvA reported the matter to the Senior Public Prosecutor (SPP) who, upon review of the evidence, agreed with LvA and changed the charge from malicious damage to property to attempted murder. Further, the SPP removed the prosecutor from the case and agreed to try the matter himself. In addition, due to LvA’s repeated follow-up, the detective branch commander personally apologised to Thembi for the investigating officer’s poor handling of her case and ensured that the missing evidence was added to the docket including a new statement from Thembi which reflects the full account of the incident. Thembi’s case then proceeded to trial, which would have never happened without LvA’s repeated interventions at every level of the justice system.
After months of therapy, Thembi’s personal wellbeing has also had a positive shift. She has been able to stop taking prescribed medication for her psychosomatic reactions due to stress and has appeared to have rediscovered a sense of hope and optimism in her life. When her therapist noted these changes, Thembi shared that she had rediscovered herself after having lost herself in her marriage to George. While Thembi initially did not see divorce as an option, she recently shared that she plans to file for divorce and feels confident that she will be able to deal with any corresponding challenges. Thembi appears to no longer believe that she is destined to suffer and is looking forward going back to work and rebuilding her life and hopes to find a good partner who will not hurt her. When reflecting on her own journey, Thembi shared “The challenges are still there... But I am strong now to face my challenges without any fear. I am bold, strong, courageous, stable and grounded. Nothing and no one will stand on my way of reaching my destiny or goal… I am ready to face the world. The hatred is gone… Now, I am full of love, happiness, and cooperation. I am a changed person.”
Thembi’s story demonstrates the power of LvA’s integrated approach. Through LvA’s legal and psychosocial support, Thembi was empowered to become the author of her own narrative in holding George accountable for his actions and finding the courage to rebuild a life free from abuse. Once hopeless, Thembi now feels that her story can give hope to other victims of gender-based violence.