Zuena massaged her knees with the ointment Dr. Yakobo had recommended. She sighed as the aching started to dissipate as the muscles around her knees relaxed, and the comforting smell of menthol filled the room. Zuena liked Dr. Yakobo. He listened and tried to help. Yes of course, she was seventy-six years old. But no, she absolutely did not want to slow down. There was still so much she wanted to do. Zuena finished by rubbing a little ointment over her ankles and elbows. It couldn’t hurt.

She put the ointment away in the little basket by her bed that held all her daily essentials. Her vitamins, moisturizing lotion, reading glasses, mobile phone, photographs of her grandchildren, her knitting, and whatever she was reading at that moment. She was reading much slower these days. She found that she needed to mull over a word, a phrase, a thought, much longer than she used to. The longer she lived, the more time she needed to consider things. The world was so big now. Maybe it always was.

She dressed in a simple kitenge dress and her comfortable shoes. It was a short walk to Muzeeyi Festo’s house, where they would all sit for the family meeting. She had decided to go a little earlier so she could breakfast with the family and hear all their news. It was not so long ago, when recently widowed, Zuena had convened a family meeting to inform them of her desire to continue managing the dairy business that she ran with her late husband, despite concerns that it would be too hectic for her. She had outlined clear plans for moving forward, including what roles she would take up or delegate that her and her husband had shared. The family listened carefully, asked questions, and offered their help where needed, assured that Zuena was up to the task. And she was! The dairy business continued to do well.

And now, Maria, former wife to Zuena’s nephew had convened a family meeting to ask for mediation as they finalized their divorce. Zuena knew this was an important meeting. She took her role in the family very seriously, and could remember in the past how women were often at a disadvantage at family gatherings such as this: denied agency, denied time and space to express their thoughts, ridiculed, all the while risking violence from male family members. And now, not only could a woman express her thoughts and feelings freely, she could convene a family meeting. What a long way they had come!

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That said, today was not going to be an easy meeting. Clement, Zuena’s nephew, had not been in favor of the divorce. But he had had to accept it. How could he force Maria to remain in a marriage that she did not want anymore? And now, he said, to add salt to injury, Maria was asking for an equitable share of their assets?

Zuena arrived at Muzeeyi Festo’s home to find quite a number of her relatives had already arrived and were partaking of the breakfast banquet that was laid out on the verandah. Muzeeyi was busy turning this way and that, passing delicious dishes to his guests. He called out a greeting to Zuena, a fellow elder in the family, that began a chorus of greetings to Zuena from everyone at the table. The atmosphere was friendly but there was an underlying tension due to the serious matters that would be discussed later. And of course, everyone was curious about the details.

Just then, Maria arrived. Everyone swarmed to her like flies. But Zuena asked them to give Maria some space. “Let her eat some breakfast,” Zuena said, “you will soon know all about it.” Maria smiled gratefully at Zuena deciding to sit next to her at the table.

A few more relatives arrived. The Local Councilor 1 had also been invited. More food was brought out for the guests. But no one had yet seen Clement, Zuena’s nephew and Maria’s former husband. Was he going to come? Surely, Clement would not fail to attend the meeting?

At eleven am sharp, Muzeeyi Festo called the family to order. He thanked each of them for honoring the call to the meeting, and continuing to be a family, a community, that supported each other. He was happy to see all the different generations represented: elders like his sister-in-law Zuena, himself and their brothers and sisters; their children, nephews and nieces, their older grandchildren, neighbors, friends, and community leaders.

“But where is Clement?”, a young woman asked.

As if on cue, Clement emerged from Muzeeyi Festo’s house. He had been there the whole time. Whispers and murmurs spread through the group as Clement walked to the front and was given a chair next to the elders. Then Muzeeyi Festo called Maria to the front. Again, whispers and murmurs spread through the group as Maria came forward, and like Clement, was seated next to the elders.

“Let us begin,” Muzeeyi Festo said motioning for Maria to address the group. As one, the whole group quietened down. Zuena gave Maria’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “Just speak your heart,” Zuena said gently.

***

Maria stood up, squared her shoulders, and began to speak:

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Family, relatives, and friends. Thank you so much for coming to this meeting and honoring my call. As you all know, I was married to Clement when I was very young, only sixteen years old. This happened a lot in those days, especially to a girl from a poor family. But I joined this family with a strong heart, young as I was, and I worked hard to provide a good home for my husband and our six children. As we speak now, our youngest is about to join A Level.

Clement and I worked hard. Together, we built that home that you now see. Yes, we disagreed. A lot and often. What couple, what parents, will not? But Clement will be the first one to tell you that we never disrespected each other, and we never physically harmed each other. We agreed from the beginning that physical violence was not going to be part of our marriage, or part of how we raised our children. We had both seen, firsthand, what violence can do in the home and we did not want that kind of fear and destruction in our home.

I cared for my family and watched my children chase after their dreams. Big, wonderful, interesting dreams. I realized I was unfulfilled. I came to this marriage so young, before I got a chance to imagine what dreams I could have. I did not divorce Clement because I hated him. I ended our marriage because I was forced to become a wife and a mother, before I had become myself. My children have inspired me to find out not only who Maria really is, but also who she could become.

I did not make this decision lightly. I know Clement was hurt. And perhaps he is still hurt. But I am standing before you today, healthy, confident, with not a mark of violence on me, as testament that Clement is a man of his word. Because we all know, the true test of your character is how you act when you don’t get what you want.

Thank you Clement for being a man of your word.

All eyes turned to Clement. He felt a bit embarrassed by the attention which was made worse when someone started clapping and everyone joined in. After a while, Maria held up her hands for everyone to quiet down.

She still had more to say:

Today, I have called you all here to mediate between Clement and myself as I ask for a fair and equitable share of the assets that we acquired and built together. I do not ask for it out of greed or as some sort of punishment, but as a fair assessment of the time, creativity, and energy I put into acquiring and building these assets with Clement.

Clement and I have agreed that all our land is an inheritance for our children, with our daughters and sons receiving equal share.

Together, we have built a thriving coffee growing business employing seven people – a business that began with just the two of us in our garden. We have a tailoring shop where I work, making clothes and managing 2 other tailors. We did all of this together. Building capital together, sharing the upbringing of our children, and the keeping of our home.

And as I move on to the next stage in my life, I am asking that we share our assets, fairly and equitably, so that we can both continue building our lives and supporting our children.

Once again, all eyes fell on Clement who didn’t try to look anyone in the eye. Maria sat down, suddenly spent from all the energy it took to hold the attention of all these people. Zuena found her tongue first. She thanked Maria for her openness and the maturity with which she presented the matter. Zuena then asked Clement if he wanted to respond. Clement just sat quietly not looking at anyone in particular. Zuena imagined that this was a difficult moment for him. He was being forced to consider Maria’s wellbeing beyond her roles as wife, mother, and business partner.

Maria cast a worried glance at Clement, just as he raised his head wondering what to say to his family gathered here. As their eyes met, there was a profound sadness but also finally, understanding.

Clement rose to his feet and once again, everyone fell silent.

He looked around the room and began to speak:

When Maria told me, she wanted to end our marriage, I was angry. Very, very, angry. For those of you who know us well, or if you listened carefully to Maria’s account of our life together, a question at the top of your mind would be what went wrong? This is what I kept asking Maria; what I kept asking myself. Hadn’t I done my best to be a good husband? Hadn’t I done my best to be a good father? Hadn’t I done my best to give us a happy life?

But listening to Maria today, I realize happiness is personal, no one can give it to you. Happiness is more than an absence of strife; it is a life at full potential. Perhaps, I too need to ask myself who I am, and who I would like to become.

What Maria didn’t tell you, is we bought our first coffee seedlings with savings from my job as a construction worker. And that she went to tailoring school, and thereafter we opened our tailoring shop with profits from our coffee growing business. So, when she talked to me about sharing our assets, I was not in agreement. I was angry. It seemed to me that I had done everything for her and received a kick in the stomach as thanks.

***

The people were already quiet but it seemed like they got even quieter. There was barely the sound of breathing.

Clement continued:

But all it takes is a small detail for all the memories to flood back. Maria, I remember when it was just the two of us in the garden with fifty coffee seedlings. I remember joking that not only were those seedlings more expensive than our children, they needed double the attention. I remember you talking to me about the women’s farming workshop you had attended, and how you liked the idea of starting a coffee growing business. Yes, it was my pay from the construction job, but it was you who tightened our belts so that we could save enough to buy our first seedlings.

It was you, after our fourth coffee harvest, who suggested increasing our income by starting a tailoring business. Once more, you tightened our belts so that you could go to tailoring school. Family, when she says we built our life together, she is telling the truth, but she is also being generous.

Maria, you were my wife, the mother of my children, and a partner. It would be a shame if after twenty years, we could not also be friends.

Here, in front of our family and the LC 1 Chairperson, I want to say that I am willing to share the assets we built together. We have two businesses. Perhaps you will continue with one and I continue with the other? That is all I have to say.

Zuena released a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. Tears filled Maria’s eyes as the people around her embraced her and congratulated her. Muzeeyi Festo gave Clement a hearty handshake, clapping him on the back. It could have been an extremely tense meeting but over the years, the elders had worked hard to create an atmosphere of constructive discussion.

“Well, I think we should conclude this matter with some delicious lunch,” said Muzeeyi Festo trying to lighten the mood.

Later that evening, Zuena mulled over the day’s events. Lunch had been a much more relaxed affair than the breakfast of earlier. Maria and Clement agreed that Maria would continue with the tailoring business which could be easily moved to a new location, while Clement would continue with the coffee growing business that utilized the land held in trust for their children.

Zuena could count on the fingers of every hand, women who had lost everything when their marriages ended or their spouses died. And any attempt to advocate for themselves ended with abuse, violence, even death.

Zuena could count on the fingers of every hand, women who had the work they did in the home, family gardens, and family businesses taken for granted, undervalued, and discounted.

Zuena could count on the fingers of every hand, women who had had day to day discussions with their fathers, brothers, uncles, partners, spouses, employers, strangers disintegrate into emotional and physical abuse, into disfigurement and death.

But every day offered an opportunity to change this narrative and grow into a community that supported women having personal agency and being able to advocate for themselves without fear of violence. A community where a woman was allowed the full human experience and not shrunk into stereotypical boxes.

Zuena climbed into bed, thankful that her granddaughters would get to live in a much better world for women with each passing day. A world that was a safe, nurturing, filled with endless opportunities and possibilities. A world that was empowering and supportive.

***

This story was commissioned by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network coordinated by Raising Voices as part of its campaign on ‘Safety and Well being – Creating new Realities for women’.