Women in Health: Mary Selona is changing ‘the way things are’ – one woman at a time

Women in Health: Mary Selona is changing ‘the way things are’ – one woman at a timeMary Selona who heads up the Blood River Advice office in Limpopo is leading from the front, whether it is intervening when women are refused PrEP at clinics or in more immediate life-threatening situations relating to gender-based violence. PHOTO: Supplied
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Mary Selona is only half-joking when she says her favourite down-time activity as a strictly “indoorsy person” is catching up on sleep. The community activist who heads up the Blood River Advice Office in rural Polokwane as programme manager runs on empty most days. But she’d also not have it any other way.

“Some days it is a struggle when I hear the stories of people’s problems and I see the need in this community. And when I know that we are still so far behind, I do go home and I don’t sleep for nights,” says Selona.

march against gender-based violence
Mary Selona (front middle), a community activist who heads up the Blood River Advice Centre in Limpopo, is putting women at the centre in her quest for social justice. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

‘the way things are’

But this has been her life for the past 11 years. She was in her late-20s when she was recruited as a volunteer by Lettah Mokhashoa, who founded the non-profit advice office in 1998. Mokhashoa died in 2014 after collapsing in the advice office complaining of breathlessness and passing on a few days later. But the office she founded remains a pillar in the community. It’s a place people, most of them women, turn to for help with complaints and crises in the community located in the Capricorn district of Limpopo.

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“I was muted to human rights before then because you just think that that is the way things are,” says Selona. At the time, it was one year after she walked out of a relationship. The youngest of her three children was just six months old, and she was unemployed, having been a stay-at-home mom.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, especially coming from a village where people expect a woman to marry and have children. But I had the support of my family and the church. Now I can say it was the best decision I made because that relationship was not going anywhere for me or my children,” she says.

Volunteering turned into working for the advice office full-time and Selona, now at the helm, is on a mission to continue in Mokhashoa’s footsteps and to carry out a mandate to centre the Constitution in fighting for social justice and fighting for human rights for all. She has also undergone training as a paralegal and continues to deepen her skills and training to stay on top of the law and changes in policy.

mary selona with the mic at a community event
The Blood River Advice office has various community outreach and training programmes. PHOTO: Blood River Advice Office/Facebook

Everyone also means every woman

“We are a rural community that is still under the leadership of traditional leaders, so we have challenges, especially for women because women cannot be heard. We are slowly introducing to these leaders what human rights mean and that these rights are for everyone, and everyone also means every woman.

“The traditional leaders must lead by the Constitution, not their own traditional laws,” she says. Selona uses the scourge of gender-based violence to emphasise the dark stranglehold of patriarchy in Blood River.

Some of the women who end up at their offices, she says, have been physically assaulted by their intimate partners. Selona says there’s also “emotional and financial abuse” as women stay trapped in abusive and toxic relationships because they don’t have jobs or opportunities. But in her community, domestic disputes are still dealt with by panels of traditional leaders – all men.

men marching against violence against women
Men in the community mobilising against gender-based violence. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

“When a woman is experiencing a gender-based violence situation in her home, she reports her case to the traditional leaders. She goes there to find only men sitting there on the panels. So women don’t feel comfortable reporting. Those who do report are also told no, they are a woman and they must respect a man,” she says.

It’s a similar situation when a woman tries to take her complaint to the police station and is sent back home to her abuser. Even clinic nurses, she says, turn a blind eye to domestic violence instead of intervening decisively.

“For us at the office, the task is to change this way of thinking. We do this first by inviting these men and community leaders to our activities so they can be included and understand the value of solidarity. Through our events, they can become more aware and be educated. We also accompany women when they have to go speak to the traditional leaders or when they have to go to the police station or the clinics. It’s so they don’t feel alone and they themselves can become empowered through knowing their rights,” she says.

mary selona from the blood river advice office
Mary Selona says it is important to network and nurture relationships with local clinic managers and matrons, SAPS, traditional leaders and other stakeholders to put women and their needs at the centre of services. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

Challenges women face

The Blood River Advice Office’s “softly-softly” approach may seem lax and lenient, too undemanding of men who should be doing the work. But there’s a deliberate strategy in this, says Selona. It’s through an approach of inclusivity, visibility, and seeming conformity to the cultural and traditional norms that the office is able to make its presence more deeply felt. In turn, this raises their profile and their authority and it gives them a powerful position from which to strategically push back and be taken seriously.

Selona doesn’t mind a fight, though, when it’s warranted. “Sometimes we have to confront and then we will call them (traditional leaders, nurses, police officers) out and say focus on your work and stop mistreating people,” she says.

Another lesson in strategy is building strong networks. The advice office works closely with the Thuthuzela Care Centre (TCC) in the area. The TCCs are set up under the National Prosecuting Authority’s Sexual Offences and Community Affairs (SOCA) Unit as so-called one-stop facilities to assist rape victims. Other important relationships to nurture, she says, are the ones with local clinic managers and matrons.

Network builidng between health officials, SAPS and Blood River Advice office
Building networks between the Blood River Advice office, SAPS and clinic staff. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

“We have other challenges where women can’t access termination of pregnancy services and now and again we have stock-outs or shortages of ARVs, contraceptives, and PrEP,” she says. “There is also this problem of nurses telling women that things like contraceptives, condoms, or PrEP are not for them and they deny them services and medication.” (PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis is antiretroviral medicines taken to prevent HIV infection)

Selona tells of a recent case when a woman went to her clinic asking for PrEP knowing her husband, who is living with HIV and works in Johannesburg, was due home on leave in a week’s time. She was shamed and judged by clinic nurses who turned her away.

“We work with patients in such cases to demand that the nurses give their full names and then we report this. We find that when we help women stand up for their rights in this way the nurses do respond and start to do their jobs properly,” she says.

Growing the network has also, this winter, seen the Blood River Advice Office recruit and train 107 women to be community volunteers. They are the ears and eyes, Selona says, who can help to identify cases where intervention is necessary; boost awareness of human rights and responsibilities, and get feedback that helps them target their messaging better and tweak their work to stay relevant.

community garden started by Blood River advice office
As part of efforts to address hunger in the community, the advice office started a community garden during lockdown last year. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook
rows of fresh spinach
PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

“I hope that as these community volunteers come to be known that every girl and young woman gets the information and knowledge about her rights, so she can be empowered. These cycles – generation after generation – of poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunity must change because it is adding to gender-based violence; to nyoape use that is very bad here; bullying in schools and bullying of parents, and also crime,” she says of the burden of social ills in Blood River.

Selona says in her household, her children (two boys and a girl) know that chores don’t have a gender. It reinforces equality, mutual respect, and recognition of each other’s efforts. For Selona, this also means knowing that moms need a time-out now and again – like a lunch date with friends. The one-time vegetarian for over 10 years jokes and says she’s eating everything these days and wanting to try new dishes, “even these seafood things like crab that I see on YouTube,” she says, laughing.

Selona and two other women with their spinach from the community garden
PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

Big victories and making do

Humour, listening, and good communication are how Selona says she tries to lead the advice office which has a tiny staff of four. They receive donor funding, including from Sonke Gender Justice and the Department of Labour, for their work with local farming communities. But when it runs out, they simply have to make do.

a meeting with women outside at the Blood River Advice office
The Blood River Advice Office recruits and often trains women to be community volunteers. PHOTO: Blood River Advice office/Facebook

“Sometimes we go without resources for six months, but we carry on. Sometimes when a woman comes in here and she doesn’t have money for a taxi to get to a shelter that we have organised for her, then we do put our hands into our own pockets – it’s what you do as a community worker – you go over and beyond your job description,” she says.

The burdens are not always just financial. Some are actual threats to their personal safety. When she and colleagues mediate, it makes them targets too. And this is a community where sticking your neck out as a woman, especially an unmarried woman as Selona is, invites suspicion, aggression, and even danger – and there’s nowhere to hide in a village where virtually everyone knows everyone else.

“But we carry on because people will tell you their situation changed because of what the advice office did for them. Sometimes it’s just because they came here to tell us their problems, to cry on our shoulders, and they [leave] feeling lighter.

“Recently we had some of the traditional leaders come to report a domestic abuse case – they came forward by themselves. That was a big victory for us,” she says.

On days like that, Selona can go home and sleep long and sleep soundly. But just as certain, she’ll be back at the office the next day – maybe not at the crack of dawn – but early enough, because she knows there will be another person waiting to be helped or just to be heard.

*This article is part of Spotlight’s 2022 Women in Health series that is running throughout August.