Three generations of Thamae women are tackling the link between gender violence and HIV-Aids

Rose Thamae

Rose Thamae

I am the founder of a community- based organisation in Orange Farm, south of Johannesburg. Called Let Us Grow, it provides home-based care and support to people with HIV.

We also train peer educators among youth who work to reduce the spread of HIV in this desperately poor community.

Two years ago, during August, we staged vigils every night for women who died from Aids- related illnesses in our community, as a way of demanding antiretroviral drugs. We were out there every night, which meant at least 31 women had died.

But our campaign succeeded. We have an antiretroviral site. The number of deaths has dropped to about two a month. I care for others as I care for myself. I became HIV-positive as a result of a gang rape.

I know, in the most painful way possible, the link between HIV and Aids and gender violence. I tell my story over and over again to get the government to provide post-exposure prophylaxis to survivors of gender violence in the hope that others will avoid the fate that befell me.

I tell my story to heal the pain of a life punctuated at every turn by violence, yet redeemed by the power of turning anger into activism. This is not only my story, but the story of three generations: Me, my daughter Mpho, and my granddaughter Kgomotso.

I was born on February 17 1953 in Orlando East, in Soweto. My mother left us when I was three because my father was very abusive. I had four brothers.

I was raped at age nine by my father's friend. I was alone and he knew my father was not home. He came to the house and told me I must go with him to find my father. He took me to his place where he raped me. He was my father's friend and I trusted him.

While he was raping me there was a knock at the door. My grandmother was calling me. He opened the door and ran away. I told her what happened. They took me to the police station and the doctor. I had to be taken several times because I contracted a sexually transmitted disease. I don't know what happened to the man. No one told me anything.

If my mother had been around, maybe she would have given me support. I was not allowed to ask any questions. I had to wait for people to tell me or ask me how I felt. I think that's why my father's friend took advantage of me. He knew I would obey him.

When my father's youngest brother, who was jailed with Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe on Robben Island, came back from jail my grandmother told him what had happened.

She asked him to find my mother. After a long search he found her. She had married another man and agreed to take us in. To me this was a victory.

After a while my life began to change for the worse. I was called names. At family gatherings they treated me like a joke. I was like a slave to them.

In 1970 I had a boyfriend and in 1971 I gave birth to my daughter. When she was four I was raped again by five boys behind Orlando Stadium. My friends ran away. I went home and told my family. They said it was my fault because I didn't run away like the others.

I have never had peace. I had to live for the sake of my daughter. I tried to get on with my life. Another boyfriend tried very hard to make me happy.

One day, as we were coming from the cinema, a gang of young men carrying pangas and knives pounced. My boyfriend ran away and left me with the monsters.

I tried to fight. I was stabbed in the back and head. They all raped me. They had no mercy.

I made my way to the police station and found my boyfriend there. The police blamed my boyfriend. They did nothing to help us. My family blamed me.

In 1990 I was diagnosed HIV- positive. My world was falling apart. But telling my story made me strong. I keep telling my story to my kids, friends, neighbours and the world. If bad things happen it is not the end of the world.

I find strength in my work.

Each week there is a funeral to attend. But there is also a life to be saved.

l This story is part of the I Stories by Gender Links for the 16 Days of Activism campaign.