A painting you cannot imagine: Learning and growing from a difficult marriage | #HelpingHandsSGBV

Our #HelpingHandsSGBV campaign looks at how SGBV in South Africa affects children and adults from other countries. For non-South Africans, there can be extra barriers to reporting SGBV – but there are similarities in their experiences too. #HelpingHandsSGBV aims to provide information on how to better understand, report and get help on issues of SGBV in South Africa.

Maria* says that, a few months ago, this interview would never have happened. Not too long ago, she felt that she was not able to speak to anyone about the abuse that she was facing in her own home. Speaking about this abuse and reaching out has encouraged her journey to healing. Maria hopes that her experiences can now offer hope and strength to people in a similar situation.

Ideas of marriage and family

“When I got married, I had no experience. You get a basic education of marriage, but it was just that.” Maria grew up with both of her parents, in a family where arguments between her parents never took place in front of the children. Growing up, divorce was something that she did not even know was an option.

Her husband’s childhood was quite different. His mother was young and unprepared to have a child, and he spent much of his childhood moving from household to household. Whilst this kind of childhood is not uncommon, Maria found that it affected her husband throughout his adult life.”

Maria and her husband got married in 2012 and she fell pregnant with their daughter very soon after. “When you get married you hear all these nice stories. People paint a beautiful picture of marriage and then you go in there and these things can start happening. It’s like something you’ve never even thought in your head.”

In their first year of marriage, Maria’s husband lost his job and couldn’t find employment for the following three years. “There was the problem of not having the money and not feeling ‘man’ enough. We accumulated so much debt…It would start as an argument and then my husband would end up slapping me. I didn’t allow it to happen, I would fight back – and that’s when it would get worse because it’s like two men fighting. It really came as a shock for me.”

Family involvement

While this physical abuse was happening, Maria felt like she was unable to tell anyone about it. She could not tell her family living in Johannesburg and she would hide the bruises when she went to work. “You feel ashamed that it’s happening. You feel sorry for yourself and you don’t feel like going through the process again, by telling someone. Also, one of the reasons is because you love your partner…it’s a very difficult situation.”

Maria’s colleague was the person to reach out to her family to inform them that something was going on. “They (my family) confronted the situation; they confronted my husband and then we had to sit down and everybody explained it to be new couples and that it takes time to harmonise.” Maria was told that as a woman you need to respect a man and understand how to live with them.

Quieter times

After their families got involved, it was a quieter time. Maria* speaks of the quieter times in the marriage where there was no violence. Once they spoke to their families, they began working on resolving things.

After their son was born the violence started up again – leading to her father having to come rescue them. They kept trying to make it work, specifically for the children – and for a year it did.

“The last instance was the worst one. I didn’t realise what was happening. I tried to reach out to my phone and I phoned my cousin and asked her to come and fetch me. I did not look at my face. When my cousin arrived, she was devastated. She just started crying and I didn’t really understand why. When I looked at myself in the mirror, I was swollen all over – he was beating me on my head and on my ear – I was swollen all over on the face, I had some blood and scratches. They took me to hospital and luckily, I didn’t have anything broken.” Maria and her children moved to Pretoria to live with her mom.


“At the time my children were very small, but they saw.” Maria says her daughter remembers things. For example, her daughter was 6 years old when her husband took a chair to a door to get into the room she had locked herself in. Although her children did not see what was happening inside the room, they heard their mom screaming for the neighbours to call the police.

“They (my children) felt what was happening. When we were at my mom’s place, it was difficult. They love their dad and it was difficult for them to be separated. He (my son) wanted me to explain why I wasn’t with his dad anymore. I can’t say that they understand what happened, but subconsciously they have some scars as well.”


After a few months, Maria’s husband’s family came to negotiate. As a means of survival and for the sake of her children she decided to give it one last try. “It’s been two years now that we’re back together, so we’ve learnt to deal with things in a very different way and I’m really hoping that it stays like that.  At first, I was very fearful – having that gap and then it happens again, you never know if it stopped or if it’s still going to happen. But I told myself I can’t live in fear – if I’m going to be in it then I have to take responsibility for watching out for the things that are happening so it doesn’t happen again.


Speaking to people about what has happened has given Maria the space to begin her healing. She stresses that anyone living in a similar situation needs to reach out and talk to people.  “We have to put all the shame aside and reach out.” Speaking to people is what gave Maria the strength to stand her ground and say ‘no more! I’m not going to allow this behaviour anymore because I don’t deserve that’. Acknowledging that not knowing the outcome is frightening ‘but at least it’s easier than living through the (abusive) situation.’