Witnessing the abuse first-hand among her family and friends led Vetten to her calling. “I fell into this work almost by accident. I happened to look at a newspaper and saw an advert for Powa.
“I applied for the position, got the job and in doing so, found my passion.” At age 21 she joined Non-Governmental Organisation People Against Women’s Abuse (Powa) and the rest just fell into place. As a child Vetten says she had no clear indication of what she wanted to do in life.
Today, as a senior researcher and political analyst for the Tshwa-ranang Legal Advocacy Centre, Vetten says she has found the courage to empower women who are tangled up in vicious and volatile situations. This stems from seeing those close to her caught in volatile relationships and being left feeling helpless.
“At that point in time nothing could be done about it. It was something that you kept a secret. Those women suffering under abuse were stigmatised. It was just so unfair,” Vetten says. Not wanting to remain complicit in silence, Vetten applied for the Powa position where she was trained as a voluntary counsellor focussing on sexual harassment.
Vetten says she often looks back in goodhearted disbelief when she thinks of her work at Powa where she did face-to-face, telephonic and court counselling.
“At the time I thought how can you advise someone at age 21, especially about their marriage? You don’t have the life experience and I often wonder what women thought about me trying to dictate to them on how to live their adult lives. I sometimes look back and smile.”
The most difficult part of her work was helping women in prison who had been through severe abuse and had eventually murdered their partners. Witnessing the plight of these prisoners was a bitter pill to swallow, but then Vetten remembers the enormous stress and pressure these women are under.
“Prison for them is just like an abusive relationship. They are in prison because of a system that failed them and it’s almost like they are forgotten by the rest of South Africa.”
As a result of the imprisonment, the women had lost contact with their children and find themselves powerless as the family members of the deceased usually cut their ties with the convicts. They are also subjected to abuse from their fellow inmates and from prison authorities.
“It’s quite hard to help people who are under the control of someone else, but we are trying to get the legal system to shift.”
She recalls an instance when an inmate’s child went into foster care before running away. She was subsequently gang raped. “That happens and these women, the mothers, sit there and they can’t do anything. They are in a helpless position.”
Vetten an executive committee member of the Gauteng Network on Violence Against Women spent eight years on the Justice for Women Campaign which pursues the early parole of these prisoners.
“It took a long time, but that eventually resulted in a change in the way the courts sentenced abused women who killed their partners and eventually secured parole for some of the women affected.” Vetten says she stopped working full time this year to read towards a Masters degree in politics.
She has also looked into the criminal justice system, especially at the processes involved immediately after rape cases are reported to pinpoint what authorities tend to get wrong. She now intends to conduct research in policy development focussing on domestic violence.
Despite the demands of her chosen field, Vetten says she is lucky to find work that truly satisfies the soul. “People sometimes feel that my work is ugly and depressing, but it widens the understanding of humanity.
“I meet people from all walks of life and when it gets tough, I remember the women in prison who have been through terrible experiences, but their spirits are not crushed.”