Saturday, July 13, 2024

“You will thrive”: How a UNFPA-supported shelter empowers women and girls in Zambia to break free from abuse


“We began our life together from scratch. I was full of life, passion and blind love,” says mother-of-three Mwaka*. “Then, later, you find out who the person truly is.”

At 22, Mwaka married a man she met through her mother. He had been hired to work as a science and English teacher at her mother’s private school. 

Young and love-struck, Mwaka could not see the ways her partner was manipulating and abusing her. “He pinched me, made me feel insecure and irrational,” she told UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. “In the end, I was the one to apologize for all the mistakes I didn’t make.” 

Across Zambia, more than one third of women reported in 2018 that they had experienced physical violence since the age of 15. Meanwhile, nearly half of all ever-married women aged 15 to 49 said they had survived emotional, physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner.

During Mwaka’s 11-year marriage, her husband became increasingly violent; he refused to let her leave the house alone and attacked her, leaving bruises all over her face and body. He threatened to kill her and her children, once even putting a knife to Mwaka’s neck.

“As I see now, he wanted to have full control over me,” Mwaka said. 

Fortunately, she was able to break free. With help from relatives, she and her children escaped her husband and were escorted by police to a nearby refuge: The Laweni shelter. 

A safe haven

In the Chewa language, Laweni can mean “rest” or “safe haven”. And that’s what many of the women and girls who come to stay at the shelter seek.

Run by the Young Women’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Zambia, the UNFPA-supported shelter mainly serves survivors of gender-based violence and human trafficking, as well as those facing early or adolescent pregnancy. It provides women and girls with access to food, clothing, medical treatment, antenatal care, legal assistance and psychosocial counselling.

“When coming to the shelter, women carry a heavy burden,” Grace, a counsellor, told UNFPA. “But here, we create a safe space for them to open up and speak about their true feelings and struggles.” 

When Mwaka first arrived at the Laweni shelter, she felt relieved that her experience of abuse was over. But other emotions also swept in: Fear. A deep sense of loss. The shattering of her self-esteem and confidence.

She questioned her decision to leave her husband and worried about her children’s futures. But as she worked through the trauma she had experienced, she began to emotionally recover.

“My mind opened up to see new perspectives,” Mwaka said. “I started feeling hopeful, and I was able to process my feelings and pain and to regain strength and perseverance.” 

It’s a transformation Grace has witnessed before in other women. “They free themselves from the fear, shame, guilt, anger, resentment and self-loathing,” she said. “Most importantly, they know they are not alone.” 

Counsellors are available for the women and girls at the shelter day and night. Legal services are also accessible; Mwaka had a lawyer assigned to her case and a protection order granted against her husband. 

“I feel very happy to be here and be part of these women’s journey,” Grace said. “I have seen how women suffer; I just want to help them speak up and to know what they can do despite the past.” 

“I see them as sisters and daughters,” she continued. “I believe in them.”

A new normal

After spending a few months at the YMCA-run shelter, Mwaka was able to move out with her children to her mother’s house. 

Women’s stays at the Laweni shelter vary widely, with some living there for two weeks – others for up to a year or longer.

With her fresh start, Mwaka enrolled her children in a new school and began working part-time as an office clerk. Sitting in her kitchen in July 2023, the avid painter reflected on her experiences and how they’ve shaped her while surrounded by her own colourful creations.

“I learned invaluable lessons from what happened,” Keiza said. “When you detach yourself from an abuser, you can see the value of who you are. And once you realize the value of who you are, you will thrive.”

* Names have been changed. 

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Read more