stories of strenght and resilience

gender-based violence (GBV) / violence against women


Portrait of Mwaka* (pseudonym) a survivor of GBV (gender based – violence)

I met Mwaka* at her house, where she lives with her three children and her mother. We sat down together in a quiet, specious room where her colorful paintings adorned the walls.
She is a survivor of gender-based violence (GBV). She stayed for a few months at a shelter run by the Young Women Christian Association of Zambia (YWCA) supported by UNFPA, where she received psychological and legal support to advocate for her rights and remedies under the law, as well as assistance in the process to terminate her abusive marriage of 11 years.
She grew up in a pastor’s home, witnessing her mother undergoing physical, verbal and emotional violence from her father, who later abandoned the family.
Her mother was running a private school where the owner of the building was a lecturer at the University of Zambia. One day, he asked her mother if she could hire a student in need of financial assistance as a teacher. After the request, Mwaka, who had been helping her mother, called the student to set up an interview and afterwards he was employed as a science and English teacher. Following that, Mwaka and the teacher began their relationship which led to marriage.

Mwaka* got married at the age of 22. Soon after, she quit school to take care of her own growing family while her husband continued medical school. She was working to support the family until her third child was born and her husband started his own medical practice.
She reflected, “We began our life together from scratch. I was not mature enough, full of life, passion and ‘blind’ love. Then eventually, later, you find out who the person truly is. That’s why I encourage young women now: discover yourself first, know who you are, believe in your worth, don’t rush into marriage or any relationship as some people change along the way and you are stuck.”
As she continued, “When I recall now, at the time I did not pay attention to small incidents, the abuse that began before marriage like he was pinching me, as well as the manipulation of making me feel insecure, irrational and doubting myself so in the end I was the one to apologize for all the mistakes that I didn’t make”.
After getting married, the physical abuse became more frequent until the point that she was hiding her bruises all over the body and face and couldn’t leave home. Additionally, he verbally humiliated her, degraded her abilities, and criticized her actions, making her feel guilty and unworthy.
Even during this very challenging time, Mwaka* was persistent to finish her studies. When the opportunity opened up, she applied for a scholarship at the Information Communication University in Lusaka. It was her dream to study Fine Art to improve and expand her painting skills as she says, “that’s my passion and I am good with my hands”. She was accepted but unfortunately, her husband did not allow it. “As I see now, he wanted to have full control over me”, says Mwaka*.

Mwaka* made up her mind to escape the abusive relationship, but once she openly told him, his manipulation and begging her to stay made her believe that he could change.

However, over the course of time the situation was getting more and more dangerous. He started threatening to harm her and the children. One time he put a knife to her neck, and a few times told her how he was going to end her and their children’s lives. He controlled her behavior by keeping her from using the phone and seeing family and friends. In particular, he prevented her from speaking with her mother, who encouraged her to leave the marriage knowing that her daughter’s life was in grave danger every minute of every day.

Nonetheless, with the help of her relatives, she and her children escaped the house and later were escorted by the police to the Young Women Christian Association of Zambia (YWCA) shelter in Lusaka. There, she and her three children aged 10, 8 and 6 years found a safe place. Although she felt relieved the abuse had stopped, she experienced a range of emotions, including fear, a deep sense of loss, and her self-esteem and confidence were shattered. A big change took place and she started questioning the decision she made, and felt anxious about the future of her children. Through counseling at the shelter she embarked on a journey to emotional recovery from the trauma of being abused by someone she once loved and trusted. Mwaka* said “My mind opened up to see new perspectives. I started seeing hope and I was able to process my feelings and pain and to regain strength and perseverance.”
At the shelter, she met other women who had been through similar circumstances, and she began teaching them crocheting. She also received a protection order and a lawyer was assigned to her case.

After a few months, she was able to move out with her children to her mother’s house. She enrolled her children in a new school and began working part-time as an office clerk, trying to establish a new “normal” consistent routine, and to rebuild a peaceful oasis for her children.
It takes a lot of strength, resilience, bravery, and determination to walk away from a situation of violence.
Mwaka* broke the silence and shined the spotlight on the issue. She says “I learned invaluable lessons from what happened. When you detached yourself from the abuser, you can see the value of who you are, and once you realize the value of who you are, you will thrive. Women should speak up. I know it’s difficult to get out from an abusive relationship because in many cases the man supports the family financially. That’s why it’s so important to learn a skill that could help to sustain you and support your children, and to realize you have the power to change your life for better.”

Mwaka* holds up one of her paintings.

South Africa

South Africa has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence (GBV) in the world and it’s been said that South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman.

I met Dru a few times before she shared her past. What struck me the most was her radiance that shines through her and her strong, confident voice while speaking so eloquently. With her gentle, beautiful face and large brown eyes, we sat down together in a quiet, spacious room, and I could not hold back my tears as I heard about her life experiences.

She grew up in an impoverished family, being the second-born to her mother. She has an older half-brother and three younger siblings. Her father was never really around and finally abandoned the family when she was only 7 years old. Life became a financial struggle, and her mother found a job as a domestic worker to support her five children.

„I remember often being hungry as a child. At this time, we moved into our relatives’ house where my uncle, when drunk, would abuse me at night. It was very traumatic for a little 7-year-old, and I was terrified of what the man would do if I told someone. I knew my mum worked very hard and only came home on weekends, which gave the abusers access to me,” she says. In her own torment, she still worried about her own mother, who worked very hard to give them the best she could. „I wanted to protect my younger siblings from similar abuse, so when I would hear the footsteps late at night, I would ensure my siblings were pushed up against the wall so that they would not suffer the same fate as me” she says.

During her young life, the family lived mostly like nomads, spending a lot of time looking for places to live, and often being thrown out by relatives when they had had enough, forcing them to wander the dark, cold, lonely streets with their meager belongings, seeking shelter from one house to another.

There was a time when a family took them in, and on this night, she remembers it being cold. The family allowed them to sleep in a partially finished building, the fresh smell of wet concrete was evident, but what choice did they have? Her mum laid down some sari’s (Indian garment), and that was their bed for that night and many nights to come. She said that when they laid down, she noticed that the roof was incomplete and that she could see beautiful stars shining through it. „We were so hungry, but because of the amazing beauty of the night sky, a wondrous place filled with bright stars, the hunger was temporarily forgotten and was replaced by awe and absolute intrigue.”

Her older brother became an alcoholic at the age of 16 as he carried a lot of anger, frustration, helplessness, and resentment within himself. Many times, she was severely beaten up by him without any reason, and until today, she carries the scars physically and mentally, this started at the age of 10. Nobody was there to protect her. While being a teenager, she attempted suicide a few times.

At the age of 18, she fell pregnant and got married. Her partner also turned out to be a violent alcoholic who was physically, emotionally, and mentally abusive. They had their second child four years later. This child was born prematurely due to Dru experiencing physical abuse and severe trauma. One night while running her little 2-year-old’s bath, he punched her so hard she collapsed and lost consciousness in the bath. Fortunately, she regained consciousness on time and found her little baby crying beside the bath, and her husband was nowhere to be found, neither was her 6-year-old son. She frantically searched for him and eventually found him.

Her 6-year-old son had crawled under his bunk bed. He had chewed off most of his nails and was shaking, and his fingers were bleeding. It was on this day that she decided to leave. She packed the little that she had and called for a taxi, which took her and her two children to her mum’s house. It was not the first time, but on this night, she felt in her heart she was not going back.

By the age of 25, she was broken beyond human comprehension, destitute, and hopeless. She believed that her life was over, and she would have to raise her children in a place riddled with drugs and crime (her childhood home). Her eyes suddenly lit up, and she said, „I eventually met someone, a good man, but it took me a very long time to believe that I could be loved or that I was even lovable.” This young man never gave up on her and dedicated his life to loving her. They eventually married, and this year marks 28 years of marriage.

He became a vessel of healing to her broken mind and spirit as she embarked on a journey of faith, hope, and restoration. She believes that God sent him to bring her the healing she needed so that His plan could be realized in her life. „You see,” she says, „God gave me beauty for the ashes in my life.”

What has happened to her? She holds no unforgiveness towards any of her abusers, only love. She says she prays for them and even helped them be reconciled with God. She has turned into a source of power to be used for good. She turned into love, hope, nurturing, restoration, healing, and possibility. „It’s by the grace of God. I was healed by Jesus,” she says. She has spent the last 25 years of her life taking care of the destitute. She has dedicated her life to taking care of mostly children who have been neglected, abused, and abandoned by their parents.

Her dream and goal were to establish a nonprofit organization to help other children who have been going through the same pain and suffering as she did. She wants to build a place of Refuge in the midst of the beauty of nature. Again, her eyes light up, „It must have a body of water, either the sea, which I absolutely love, or a lake, river, or dam, and lots of trees. We will grow our own food and live off the grid,” she says. Her place of refuge would have the space for children to heal, grow, learn, and be restored. Her dream is that the very children she is caring for will become a beacon of hope to others. Dru has recently registered the nonprofit organization. It is called Salve Regina Place of Refuge, which means Hail Holy Queen (after the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the Patron Saint of the organization). Anyone wanting to contribute and assist in any way is most welcome to do so.

Dru’s testimony deeply touched me on so many levels. Her uplifting spirit, exquisite beauty, unfathomable strength, love, and act of forgiveness become her true might and force, an unbridled perseverance to start a new life that she is now creating for herself, her loved ones, and the ones who are in a helpless or dire situation.

*Names have been changed to protect identity of individuals and to maintain confidentiality.