NAIROBI, Kenya – Saida Ali was just a child when she started pushing back on the notion that domestic violence was normal.
In her small town near Machakos, 37 miles (60km) southeast of Nairobi, she first noticed the families around her were “not at peace,” but that no one spoke about the fact “men actually did beat the women in their lives.” Then the issue landed on her doorstep when an older cousin fled her marital home after years of beatings.
“It became a big puzzle in my head: Why we didn’t talk about it,” she says. “It was obvious she was unhappy in her marriage.”
Her cousin eventually left that marriage, but it wasn’t long before Ali’s older sister was back home, covered in bruises after being assaulted by her husband.
“I sat down with her and my mother and I said, ‘This is not right.’ You’re going to end up being blinded because this beating has left your eye so sore,’” Ali, who was just 16 at the time, says.
The estranged husband sent a family member to get his wife back.
“That man who had been sent, as an older man in that family, said, ‘The women married into our family. They never leave, because everything that happens there, even if it’s nasty, it’s part of the family secret and we don’t let that out,’” recalls Ali.
“That, for me, was the epitome of this realization that women suffer in silence, and this is what happens behind closed doors, and it’s a family thing – you don’t shame the family.”
Ali accompanied her sister back to her marital home, but only to pick up the few possessions her sister owned, which were mostly clothes for the children.
This was the beginning of Ali’s activism, and her determination not just to smash what she knows is a strong patriarchy, but also the cultural beliefs behind it, which include, as she says, “the value of marriage and motherhood for a woman’s standing.”
One example is dowry payments – made in cash, cows or other goods. Because money is given to a bride’s family upon marriage, it’s often taken to mean that men can exercise carte blanche when it comes to “disciplining” their wives, Ali says.
“The problem of dowry is the moment it stops being seen as a gift that is exchanged between the family and [becomes] a prize. Then it becomes problematic, because it’s like buying another property,” Ali says.
In Kenya, the case of Jackline Mwende, whose husband chopped her hands off because she couldn’t get pregnant, encapsulates the problem of women’s bodies continuing “to be seen as vessels of reproduction,” Ali says.
Community activists recently informed Ali of a shocking and unreported manifestation of domestic violence in Kibera, an informal settlement in the capital, Nairobi. There, she says, “a husband mobilizes his peers to come and join him in beating up his wife.”
Ali heard a similar story from a community activist in central Kenya who “found a man and his peers continuing to beat the body of one such women long after she was dead.”
As the executive director at Kenya’s Coalition on Violence Against Women, Ali took on the police in a case where a schoolgirl was raped and left for dead.
When the organization heard about the case from a journalist, she sought to verify it directly with the girl’s family. She found the family legal support to identify perpetrators and helped provide counseling to the girl. But when she discussed the case directly with the police and advised them on how to proceed, she found little further support: The girl’s attackers were sentenced to grass-cutting.
But Ali’s campaign, Justice for Liz, garnered international media attention on a huge scale, and with the help of a petition, the perpetrators were eventually jailed.
It was a rare victory: Like many women’s rights advocates, Ali doesn’t put much stock in the effectiveness of government policies on domestic violence. “If we look at Ghana for example, at Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, they all have laws to address domestic violence,” she says. “While we know that policies and legal frameworks have been put in place, it is important to actually use them, in order to demonstrate to other women that, actually, whatever happens, an abusive relationship is a form of torture.”
Ali sees glimmers of hope, though, such as the Musasa Project in Zimbabwe that seeks justice for “women who have been systematically beaten by their husbands for years.” It’s a challenging remit in a country that – along with its neighbors Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia – continue to see high rates of acquittals and short sentences for perpetrators of domestic violence.
Ali hopes that her eight-year-old daughter “never has to experience that fear.” Which is why, at 41, she’s still fighting against domestic violence with the same spirit of her outraged, 13-year-old self.
“I look back and I say, ‘Oh God, I was a powerhouse when I was a young girl,’” she says. “And I still am!”