KIGALI, RWANDA – A short-waisted, thin woman hunches over in a marshland near the river in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. One by one, she washes a pile of clothing and blankets in Kicukiro district.
The 28-year-old woman, who requested anonymity for fear of her safety, says she suffered many years of harassment and violence at the hands of her husband. Money problems were usually the trigger.
“Every time I asked him for money to buy foods for our kids, he responded by beating me up and hurling insults at me,” she says.
She finally decided to find employment so she wouldn’t have to rely on her husband for money.
“I maintained a wise silence and decided not to ask him for anything so that our kids sometimes spent a day without food,” she says. “This prompted me to look into ways to start finding food for my kids.”
She says some of her neighbors were aware of her difficulties and gave her the idea of washing clothes to earn a living to support herself and her children.
“I am obliged to serve as a casual laborer so that when I am lucky enough to be hired, I earn 3,000 francs per day,” she says.
With this money, less than $5, she buys food and clothing.
“The little money I earn is very helpful to me,” she says, “because my kids do not suffer from hunger anymore. I don’t walk barefoot or wear torn clothes anymore.”
Earning money and contributing to the household income have given her a sense of security.
“Since I began earning money, my husband has stopped hurling insults at me or beating me up, because I don’t ask him for anything,” she says.
Even though it is difficult for her to work while raising her kids, she says that now she can live with dignity.
“It is very difficult for me to wash such a pile of clothes and raise three closely spaced kids at the same time,” she says. “I have cracks between [my] toes because I spend a lot of time with my feet in water. My back is always hurting, but I am in joy because today, I have a sense of dignity. I am no longer deprived of my rights.”
She says she doesn’t plan to give birth to any more children because she wouldn’t be able to balance working with raising them. But this could become a fresh point of contention with her husband.
“I had a tubal ligation without my husband knowing,” she says. “But if he happens to know it, he can kill me. Can you imagine if I gave birth to one more child, what would it be like? How can all those children survive?”
Women say they used to accept domestic abuse by their husbands as gender-based violence was long considered the norm here. But now, community members are breaking this cultural silence as government-trained mediators resolve domestic disputes as part of a multipronged