KIGALI, Rwanda

A 33-year-old Rwandan woman has broken her silence about domestic violence, calling for justice after she was allegedly battered by her husband for years.

The ordeal of the woman, identified only as Mugisha to protect her privacy, recently came to the fore after she filed a case seeking a divorce at a court in northern Rwanda’s Musanze district which is still pending trial.

Fond memories

In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Mugisha recalled how she had an amazing wedding that followed a year-long courtship with her husband.

In 2017, the couple married in a church, vowing to stay together until death separated them.

But their happy moments were short-lived.

When Mugisha was six months pregnant, she began noticing changes in her husband’s behavior.

Though it was unclear what caused this, Mugisha said that in the ensuing days, she suffered persistent harassment at home, including battery.

“My husband started coming back home late at night and drunk. He would hardly talk to me, and whenever I tried to talk to him, he responded by beating me,” she said.

He also insulted her and rarely provided her with basic necessities.

“I had abandoned my job at a travel agency after getting married because it was so demanding. I agreed with my husband that I would look for another job later,” she said.

The couple lived in the town of Musanze in northern Rwanda, where the husband operated a business. Mugisha also worked in the same town.

Monstrous abuse

“My husband behaved like a real monster. I was always scared whenever night fell. I knew he could come back drunk and harass me. I faced both physical and psychological torture,” Mugisha said.

Besides the abuse, Mugisha said she realized her husband was having extramarital affairs, which he was not willing to talk about.

“He maintained that it was his right to do all he wanted, that he no longer loved me. He said I was also free to do whatever I wanted. With such a mindset, there was no more steam in our marriage and the situation kept worsening.”

It was then that Mugisha decided to walk out.

“I decided that enough was enough. I sought shelter at a friend’s place where I used to stay before I got married,” she said.

She had endured the abusive relationship due to societal pressure, which she said often forces victims to accept their plight due to fear of perceived damage to their reputation in case of divorce.

Mugisha was then expecting and had to do all the arrangements to find the delivery kits to help her give birth safely.

Her husband had cut all communications with her.

“I got support from my family and from friends to buy all I needed for the baby and myself. I knew I had no husband to help me and I bought what I thought was most needed,” she noted.

She was lucky to deliver without any complications.

She is now the mother of a three-year-old boy and they live in eastern Rwanda’s Rwamagana district, where she relocated and secured a temporary job.

Want a new life

Mugisha said she has opted to live as a single mother, look for ways to raise her son and start a new life.

“I decided to file the case because I think divorce can relieve me and set me free. However, the case has been delayed because my former husband is not cooperating. I hope the court will dissolve our marriage.

“I tried all avenues of reconciliation in vain. Even when families were involved, nothing positive came out of it. I want to live my own life and plan for my future.”

Mugisha is among the many victims of gender violence worldwide.

According to statistics from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, an estimated one in three women around the world has experienced sexual or physical harm by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

UN Women warned that the economic, health, and security strains, as well as cramped lockdown conditions, were likely to cause a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence.

In Rwanda, statistics from the Ministry of Justice indicate that incidents of gender-based-violence rose to 5,013 in 2019 from 4,124 in 2018.

Jeannette Bayisenge, Rwanda’s Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, underlined that building a family free from gender-based violence is a shared responsibility.

“Leaders, partners, and all family members should work together in the fight against gender-based violence. No one should face gender-based violence — not men, women, boys or girls,” she said.

UN Women has reported an increase in domestic violence worldwide.

Between mid-March and May, such violence increased by 30% in France and Singapore, while demand for emergency shelters increased in Canada, the US, the UK, Germany and Spain, according to reports.

Criminalized in Rwanda since 2008, the Law on the Prevention and Punishment of Gender-Based Violence defines gender-based violence as “any act that results in bodily, psychological, sexual and economic harm to somebody based on their gender.”

But activists say outdated laws and difficulties in accessing legal counsel pose difficulties for most women from poor backgrounds seeking to combat gender-based violence.

Domestic violence has been attributed to poverty and abuse of alcohol, among other factors.

Marie-Louise Mukashema, an attorney with the Legal Aid Forum, a non-governmental organization providing legal aid to vulnerable people in Rwanda, thinks poverty and a culture of silence leave many women who cannot afford legal services to suffer domestic abuse.

But the Rwandan police force has made it easier for women to report abuse by putting a toll-free line in place.

Legislator Suzanne Mukayijore, a member of the Rwanda Parliamentary Network on Population and Development, also believes silence about gender-based violence, especially in rural areas, abets the vice.

“Society covers up offenders due to reluctance to speak up in families and neighborhoods,” she said.

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