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On the wrong end of his fist? Lisa's there for you

By unknown | Aug 18, 2008 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Whoever said dynamite comes in small packages must have been inspired by Lisa Vetten and her ilk.

The petite Vetten, who has become the voice and face of Tshwaranang, a legal and advocacy centre in Joburg that aims to end violence against women, is a thorn in the side of rogue men and the establishment.

"Feminist" would be a soft word to describe what drives her. While something as bestial as misogyny might drive the heinous actions of men who badger their partners, human language is yet to come up with a word to describe Vetten's love for womenfolk and her concern for their plight.

The sparse collection of books in her corner office in the space allocated to Tshwaranang on the 10th floor of the Braamfontein Centre offers a window into her soul: Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Policing Sexual Assault, Carnal Knowledge, Society and Gender, Rape & Society.

In her crusade - for that's what her job is - that began with POWA (People Opposed to Women Abuse) in 1991 and then a stint with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), she has authored a few books - not some soapie Mills & Boon material, but commentary on how women can be saved from the scourge - and contributed chapters to others.

Vetten says Tshwaranang - a good Setswana word for unity - does research and provides legal advice and assistance, from two offices - in Braamfontein and in Acornhoek, Mpumalanga.

She hopes their work isn't just about assisting individuals but about changing the system.

Within the human rights framework the research tends to focus on how they can make the legal system work meaningfully to bring about change for the individual, she says.

Many of those who seek their help are treated badly in court, "so we give a lot of advice around domestic violence, maintenance, rape and those cases".

Abuse is taboo. But her words are beautiful in their passion. In her women are spoken for.


There's a connection between health and law and "health is often an overlooked aspect in response to violence [against women]".

Vetten talks about housing too, shedding some light. It is also an issue of domestic violence.

Tshwaranang has found, in the course of research, that you can't put women in shacks for the rest of their lives as a remedy for abuse as "those who come out of abusive relationships will either go back to their abusers or end up homeless".

She's seen many women in vat-en-sit relationships who, "after 15-20 years, when they split with their partners, have no claim on anything; no claim on the house. They have nothing".

It is against this background that Tshwaranang has worked hard at making the authorities realise how housing is key to the fight against abuse, Vetten says.

Many of the women who make it to the Tshwaranang offices in Jorissen Street come with domestic violence and maintenance complaints.

"A lot of it is failure to enforce court orders."

Many of these women are aware of their rights but when they try to enforce them they are failed by the system; the clerks are indifferent, the police won't arrest and the employers won't apply garnishee orders.

"The problem is in implementation."

In answer to the question "are you winning?", Vetten says the crime stats announced by Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula's office are often either dated or incorrect.

Says Vetten of the rape stats: "They are inadequate. We don't know if there are increases or decreases.

"So, to answer your question, it's quite hard to say when we don't even have the basic information. Whatever is available is about 10 years old."

Her most harrowing cases have involved women accused of killing their spouses. Her experience tells her these women have "in most instances been exposed to a lot of violence".

Until they snapped?

She doesn't say.

Her only regret is that Tshwaranang has had its hands tied in terms of coming to the aid of the children of those jailed women.

But they are quite helpful in the early stages "helping with the court presentation, getting the best legal defence".

During Jacob Zuma's rape trial Tshwaranang was denied the chance to participate as friends of the court, Vetten says, incensed at how she says the defence was allowed carte blanche to use "extremely old pernicious stereotypes against women" in their battle to discredit Khwezi, the woman who accused the ANC president of violating her.

Criminal cases have not exactly been friendly to amicus applications, says Vetten. In three attempts, only one has been granted so far, she adds.

The Joburg taxi rank assaults on women commuters has presented Tshwaranang with a few hiccups but they have ideas, she says, which will be implemented in September.

This month the focus is on women abuse and health.

Vetten cites a few pertinent examples of children being injured in the fracas as the mother is being attacked.

They also want to "make sure the police are obliged to help women get medical assistance after abuse".

A large number of abused women suffer from HIV-Aids while others present with heart problems and other stress-related ailments, she says.

So "health-police-court response to women abuse" is the subject this Women's Month.

But abuse is also helped by those women who remain hopeful that their savages will see the light and mend their ways.

"Instinctively," says Vetten, "with women, the first time there's trouble, we stay to mend things; we don't up and go."

There's still a stigma attached to women who can't keep their marriages intact, she says.

There's no society that's free from the bane of women abuse, she adds. Abuse also happens across race, culture and class.

But while whites tend to commit so-called family murders where they kill their wives and children, black folk, thanks to the extended family system, often end up killing people outside the immediate family, such as mothers-in-law: "They tend to accuse these of interfering."

Men do come for help but in most instances it is brothers and fathers coming on behalf of their relatives.

Vetten says: "Often they don't know what to do when their own is abused - they want to do something but they don't know what, other than beating up the offender."

The Acornhoek office has handled male abuse cases and in the Vaal region an employer took on men, offering jobs and more money in exchange for sex. "They came here wanting help."

Mission accomplished for Tshwaranang, tantamount to hoping for a miracle, will be when "we can see women are at a point when they don't need us, even if the courts can't help them, they know what to do to help themselves".

Closing shop can only come when the laws and policies are in place and "we see, say, one woman in a long while".

If this is the criterion, Tshwaranang is in for the long haul!

Trained in psychology, Vetten can only say that her own "unpleasant personal experiences" made her seek her vocation in this area of work.

"And the longer you stay," she says, "the less it becomes about you."

The niggling worry of how policies of state affect advocacy has pushed her back to the books - she's now reading for a masters in politics.

While she tries her best to act the normal girl-next-door who loves movies, gardening and the company of her brothers and sister, one gets the feeling that, with a qualification in politics, the prognosis for bad men has just turned gloomier.

Their game is up!

You can call Tshwaranang on 011-403-8230/4267


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