“I want to teach women that anything is possible”: domestic violence survivors from around the world speak out

Posted by
Harriet Hall
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Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s rights charity working to end violence against women and girls across the globe. The organisation partners with grassroots women’s rights groups and specialist services to demand equal rights under the law by holding governments to account.

To raise awareness for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Friday 25 November), Stylist teamed up with Womankind to share the harrowing stories of three women who have have escaped domestic violence

Domestic violence is the most common form of violence against women; one in three women worldwide will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime. It is a global crisis happening in every country in the world, and it doesn’t discriminate – affecting people of all ages, classes and backgrounds.

But this violence is not inevitable. Prevention is possible. And yet the essential services that protect women are under threat from funding cuts and closures. Here in the UK, 155 women on average are turned away from refuges each day, and the situation is even more serious in countries such as Ethiopia and Nepal where there are fewer services and funds available.

Here three women across the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, explain how – with the help of Womankind Worldwide - they overcame domestic violence and rebuilt their lives.

Mekedes*, 22, Ethiopia

“I want to teach women that anything is possible.”

In Ethiopia, violence against women and girls is common and widely accepted. Mekedes was raped and attacked by her brother for years, but her life changed because of a safe house run by Womankind’s partner, AWSAD.

“When I was 16, I was sent to Addis Ababa to study with my brother. We didn’t grow up together but I was told that he was my brother. He was supposed to send me to school, but as soon as I moved there, the abuse started.

It lasted for five years. He beat me up and made me be terrified of him – but he was a commander in the police and warned me not to speak out. As a result of his repeated rape, I got pregnant three times, and he forced me to have three abortions. They all hurt a lot.

I was afraid and depressed, so I didn’t speak out. If my own brother treated me like this, I assumed that everyone else was being treated the same way.

But one day, my neighbour found me beaten up, screaming and lying on the ground. They got help. I was taken to a safe house where the house mother provided me with clothes, food and a bed. She gave me sanitary pads because I bled every day.

Years of abuse had left me in great pain and the abortions caused medical complications. I couldn’t even stand up. I was so terrified I couldn’t speak, I felt as though I was losing my mind. But the safe house provided counselling and medical help that enabled me to heal. They checked on my progress and worked to bring me to the place I am now.

Eventually, when I was confident enough to speak, and healthy enough to stand, they asked me what I wanted to learn. I told them I wanted to become a hairdresser – and they helped me study.

Years of abuse left me in great pain

I got an internship after which the house helped me find a job, and provided me with my first month’s rent. After a couple of years, I helped establish a hairdressing school in the safe house. The night before it opened, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

I never believed I would be standing here today.

Every day I tell my students never to give up hope, and that if I can do it anyone can. I want to teach women that anything is possible.”

Farida, 21, Afghanistan

“For fear of this man, I stayed at home for three years doing nothing”

Afghan women face restrictions imposed by tradition and strict laws. Many have limited freedom, experience daily violence and have no say in the decisions that affect them. Neither do they have equal access to healthcare, education or jobs.

Farida is just one of the girls that Womankind’s partner, Humanitarian Assistance for the Women and Children of Afghanistan (HAWCA), sees every day.

“When I was 11, a man asked my parents if he could marry me, but they said no – and that I was too young. But he still considered himself engaged to me – because in my society, only the man can break an engagement. In his and his family’s eyes, I belonged to him, and he could do what he wanted with me.

A year later, he started threatening me on the way to school. He said if I went to school he would kill me and cut me into pieces. I was too scared to tell anyone at first, but then he started to beat me.

I told my parents, who spoke to his family, but nothing changed. So, at age 12, I left school.

He said if I went to school he would kill me and cut me into pieces

Then, one day, when I was 15, I was at the market with my mother and I saw an advertisement for a women’s support centre that was running courses. I tried to convince my parents to let me attend but they worried that the man would threaten me again. I didn’t give up and finally convinced them to enrol me on the human rights course.

I learned a lot about my rights and forced marriage on the course and I saw women coming to the centre for legal support. After a few weeks I decided to tell the lawyer about my problem and my mother came with me.

The lawyer worked on my case and visited the man’s family. At first he didn’t want to break the engagement contract, but luckily the court sided with me because I was underage.

The day the court announced I was free, I felt a huge relief. The centre helped me to return to school and ever since, I have worked to advise other girls I meet to defend their rights like I have done – because it is possible.”

Precious, 34, Zimbabwe

“I had nowhere to go to protect my baby”

In Zimbabwe, despite the passing of domestic violence laws in 2007, almost half of women have experienced physical or sexual violence. Womankind is working with the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA) to ensure domestic violence laws are brought to life and implemented across society.

Precious was supported by the project to escape an abusive husband and build a new future for her and her daughter.

“I got married when I was 20 years old. But it wasn’t a happy marriage.

My husband would talk non-stop at me, then he would start shouting at me, and before I knew it he was beating me. Sometimes I was thrown out the house so I would end up sleeping with my baby outside. For a long time. I blamed myself. I started thinking that I had done something to deserve the abuse.

I was verbally abused, emotionally abused, physically abused - and all the while I believed he still loved me. But it got so bad that I couldn’t even laugh or smile. I was always angry and bitter and I would sometimes take it out on my child - she couldn’t even ask me a silly question without me getting cross.

Soon, his family joined in. His brother and other family members began abusing me, too. I had nowhere to go to escape the violence. I had nowhere to go to protect my baby.

But, somehow, I still told myself that everything was fine – that everything would be fine if I could just be a better wife.

Then a friend told me this was not OK. That I should get help.

I didn’t think anyone would help me as I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have any evidence of the violence – I thought people would just say my husband was being a man and it was his right. But I built up the courage to go to ZWLA with my case. I wanted to divorce him, for the sake of my child, my baby girl. My marriage was holding me in a tight grip, I couldn’t do anything.

I was verbally abused, emotionally abused, physically abused - and all the while I believed he still loved me. 

I opened all my heart to them and I felt like they let me talk more that I had ever talked before about how I was feeling. They supported me through the whole divorce. I couldn’t believe it. I was empowered for the first time. I had thought before that this was it for me, I will be forever in this abusive marriage. But now I was free.

My future is bright, I feel like I can do anything for me and my daughter. Next month I am opening up my own mini hair salon. It won’t be anything to do with my husband, it will belong to me, an independent woman.”

If you want to donate to Womankind Worldwide to enable the work they are doing, you can do so here.

*Name changed for safety reasons