From HIV victim to Aids activist

Rose Thamae



I AM the founder of a community-based organisation in Orange Farm, South Africa, called Let Us Grow providing home-based care and support to people living wi

th HIV.


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


Two years ago, during the month of August — Women’s Month in South Africa — we staged a vigil every night that a woman died as a result of an Aids-related illness in our community as a way of demanding the roll out of anti-retroviral drugs or ARVs.


We were out there every night: in other words, at least 31 women died during that period.


But our campaign succeeded and now we have an ARV site. The number of deaths has been reduced 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 South African government to provide Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) 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: of me, my daughter Mpho, and my grand-daughter Kgomotso.


I was born on February 17 1953 in Orlando East. My grandmother told us that my mother left us when I was three years old, because my father was very abusive. I had four brothers. Three have passed away and I have only one left.


I was raped at the age of nine by my father’s friend. He took advantage of me because 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.


It was 10 in the morning. I was young I could not understand what this man was doing to me. There was no one in his house. He ordered me to lie down, so that he can lie with me while we were waiting for my father. I did. He was my father’s friend and I trusted him. As I lay down, he raped me. He kept on saying be a good girl I’ll finish right now.


While he was raping me there was a knock at the door. It was my grandmother, calling my name. He opened the door and ran away. My grandmother grabbed me and asked me what he had done to me. I told her what had happened to me. They took me to the police station. I was then taken to the doctor. I had to be taken several times because I contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD). I don’t know what has happened to this man. No one told me anything. My grandmother… everyone… kept quiet.


If my mother had been around, maybe she would have given me support. I was on my own, I was all alone. I was not allowed to ask any questions especially in those days. 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 uncle (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 my uncle to find out where my mother was.


After these long years he finally found my mother who was married to another man. She agreed to take us in. To me it was a victory to find my mother. As time passed my life began to change.


I was called names, Le tla le pepiwe, vezandlebe which means I’m not the child from that family. I had one half-sister. Whenever there was a family gathering 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 my daughter was four years old I was raped again by five boys behind Orlando Stadium. My friends and I were coming from the stadium. They managed to run away. I was not so lucky. I didn’t escape: they raped me. I went home and told my family. They said it was my fault: why didn’t I run away like the others?


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


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


I tried to fight, but I was stabbed in the back and in my head. I lay there with blood all over me. They raped me one by one. They had no mercy at all. No one could hear me screaming as it was an open space. After gang-raping me they left me there.


I managed to make my way to the police station and found my boyfriend there. The police asked me what kind of a boyfriend leaves his girlfriend behind. They blamed my boyfriend. They did nothing to help us. My family blamed me.


Two years later in 1990 I was diagnosed as HIV positive. The world was falling apart. Telling my story made me feel strong. I keep telling my stories again and again to my kids, to my friends, to my neighbours, to the world. I have learned that if bad things happen to you it is not the end. I find strength in my work. Each week there is a funeral to attend. But there is also a life being saved; a new lease of life being given.


(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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