Sisters in Solidarity: Women should stand up for other women to end violence.

By Alice Kayibanda

July 3, 2024

Sophie (Not her real name) a GBV victim in her home in Rutsiro

Alice Kayibanda

Sophie had endured years of fear and abuse by her husband before moving in with his family in Kigali. The move brought no respite. Even as the physical abuse escalated, his mother and sister subjected Sophie to verbal abuse, humiliation, and food deprivation. They mocked her appearance and threatened to take her children. One day, her husband beat her and threatened to kill her. She fled the home, leaving her children behind.

In my work as a photojournalist, I have interviewed dozens of women with stories like Sophie’s.  Silence, disbelief, rejection, or even outright collusion with the perpetrator by female relatives are some of the challenges women experience when facing violence. Tragically, women sometimes enable gender-based violence against other women when the perpetrator is a male relative or friend. 

If we are to end the epidemic of violence against women, their sisters, mothers, in-laws, and neighbors must come to their defense. When women show empathy for other women who experience violence, they form a powerful force against perpetrators and societal norms that condone or ignore such violence.

In Rwanda, violence against women is widespread. The Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey 2019-20 reveals its extent. It found that 37% of women aged 15-49 have experienced physical violence since the age of 15. Yet, it is still challenging for women to report violence, as an estimated 40% of women who have been victims of physical or sexual violence have never sought help to stop the violence or shared their experiences with anyone. 

In addition, family members and friends who know of the abuse often fail to report it or to stand up for the victim. Many reasons can push women to go against other women, including those who marry into their families. According to the Access to Justice for Gender Based Violence Victims, cultural and patriarchal stereotypes fuel the violence against women in Rwanda and elsewhere.  Some women may support abusive behavior by male relatives as they are considered the heads of families. Other women may choose to remain silent about domestic abuse within their family due to financial dependence on male relatives. 

In the aftermath of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, many women were in vulnerable situations. Many now live in severe poverty, orphaned and devoid of familial support. Some find comfort in the families they marry into, with no other safe shelters if they leave their husbands' households.

Gender-Based Violence in Rwanda is also complicated by cultural acceptance of some forms of violence. For example, according to the Demographic and Health Survey 2019-20, half of women in Rwanda justify a husband's beating in at least one of five specific situations (burning food, going out without telling the husband, neglecting children, or refusing sex). A UNDP study also reveals a staggering one quarter of people worldwide believe it’s okay for a man to beat his wife. These attitudes can create an internal self-sustaining cycle of violence that continues for generations. 

In another case, Angelique also suffered physical abuse from her husband. Her mother-in-law witnessed the beating and joined in with threats to take her child if she reported the husband. When Angelique finally fled, she left her daughter with her husband. The daughter was also abused physically and ran away from her father when she was 12 years old and never went back to school. 

Sadly, such violence against women may result in death. In 2020, approximately 47,000 women and girls were killed worldwide by their intimate partners or other family members.  Although the data on death by intimate partners in Rwanda are not open to the public, the Rwanda Broadcasting Agency reported that in just one year (2019), 49 women were killed by their husbands. 

Many might argue that the Government of Rwanda has made enormous efforts to fight gender inequities at the legal, policy, and institutional levels. Although Rwanda has made important strides in these areas, there's still much work to be done in terms of societal attitudes and cultural behaviors surrounding violence against women, as well as building women’s income-earning capacity and financial independence. Supporting women to access financial resources or provide job skills training can promote independence. This allows women to prioritize their safety and well-being and ensure they are not forced to stay in harmful situations due to a lack of options.

Women who offer support to other women, including those who join their families through marriage, can play a crucial role in ending the cycle of abuse. By supporting women who are abused and violated, we can raise awareness. Although holding perpetrators accountable, regardless of their familial ties, may lead to the arrest of a family member, it can often save the lives of victims and ensure a safer and more equitable society for all. As women, we cannot afford to be selective of who we stand up for. Every woman matters.

Alice Kayibanda is a photojournalist and documentary photographer. She’s spent a decade chronicling daily life in Rwanda. Through her visual storytelling, she sheds light on social issues and aims to foster empathy and understanding.