Standing up to families

Date: January 1, 1970
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I am married to a man who is not from the same ethnic group as mine. We are from Burundi, though he has been staying in South Africa since 2000. His family does not like me and some members of my family did not appreciate him. We got married in 1994 and we have three kids together. When our first son was six months old, my husband decided to flee the country because of the war.

He went to a neighbouring country, Tanzania, and I moved out of the area because of security reasons and went to stay with my family in another area. One year later, I joined him in Tanzania because the killing was getting worse and worse and the new neighbours were harassing me because of my husband’s ethnicity. My family went to Rwanda for the same reasons.
Life was not easy at all in Tanzania; we had no job or any other income. We had a small
amount of money left from our savings, so in 1999 decided to move forward. He came to South Africa and I went back to Burundi because transport was expensive and we did not have enough money for all of us to go to South Africa (two kids and a pregnancy).
All these 5 years, his family was in charge of our possessions and the family’s possessions. When I went back, I was expecting to have a place to stay because my husband and I had a house. However, I stayed at my younger sister’s place. I was not comfortable there because my sister did not have kids at that time, and it was too much for her – 4 extra mouths to feed. She was also going through a process of divorce. I was supposed to support her, not have her supporting me. I decided to move out to a small township and rent a house, but my sister was still always there for me.
Two months later, I went to talk to my in-laws about my own house; they told me that they would contact me after a family meeting, but they didn’t, until I went back a second time. To my surprise, they told me that I was not welcome in their family anymore because they heard that I divorced their son before I came back, and that even the pregnancy was not his. It was a big shock to me because they were lying, and that house was my only hope for financial support. They knew that we were still married because each time I went to visit them he would phone me and talk to his family through me.
I met an old friend, a neighbour of my mother-in-law (she died before our marriage) who is a judge. He knew about the story, and he advised me to go to court because it’s my right to have the house – even if it was true that my husband and I are divorced – as long as I am the one who has the kids.
I went to court and the judge told us to come back in a month for the decision. After a month, I was told that I lost the case because I was no longer married to my husband and didn’t have any right to the possessions. I was not surprised by the verdict because my husband’s uncle was also a judge. I just asked for an appeal. During that time, I had a lot of support from elders who knew my husband and his mother. His aunties from his father were also cross about what was happening to me, but I told them not to fight, I will deal with them myself.
I went for the appeal with my letter, and while waiting for my turn, someone in the audience asked me why I was there. I was seven months pregnant at the time and he was feeling sorry for me. I told him the whole story and he gave me all the information regarding the rules and rights around families and marriage. He told me everything that I needed in order to win the case. When I went back to hear the court’s decision, I won the case and got the keys for the house.
This selfishness ruined the relationship between my husband’s family and me, as well as
between my kids and them. But the worst part, it ruined the relationship between my husband and his family.
In 2003, UNHCR contacted me to join my husband in South Africa for family reunification. My husband told me to sell the house and bring the money. We bought a house in Johannesburg where stay until now. We have a wonderful life and we are trying to rebuild the relationship with our families.
What I want to say here is: women stand up, fight for your rights; there is always one way or another to meet your needs.
* not her real name
This story is part of the “I” Stories series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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