Njeri wa Migwi is a wife, mother of five and the founder/CEO of Usikimye Organization. She was still a minor when she got married and that led to over a decade of domestic abuse. Materially, she wanted for nothing, but emotionally, she was broken. Today, her pain has fueled her activism, and she is determined to never let another woman go through what she experienced on her watch. This is her story in her own words.
My parents divorced when I was pretty young. I grew up with my dad. I consider myself a fierce feminist. I was born and raised in a family of three in Kariobangi, Nairobi. I was married at a very tender age, and at the age of 16, I was slapped and beaten by my boyfriend. That was my first experience with gender-based violence.
After getting married, I endured physical abuse from my then-husband…I was kicked, punched, thrown on the floor, shoved against the wall and struck with objects for 15 years. I endured all that pain through tears. I also suffered partial hearing loss and was bruised all over, bruised emotionally as well.
At some point, I got fed up with violence and violations. One day, I walked away from my luxurious five-bedroom house and my own BMW SUV and went to begin life afresh with nothing and have never looked back or regretted my decision. I had to start from scratch in a single rented room in Nairobi. Then I began hawking tomatoes and working as an interior designer.
As a child, I often saw my family host all kinds of people and I attribute that experience to my love for charity. Before going into activism, I was into interior design, which I studied in China. But then balancing activism and interior design was tasky and the activism was urgent. So I had to choose, and as you already know, I dropped the interior design job.
In 2019, I founded Usikimye (Don’t Be Silent) as a rescue and care centre for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). At 40, I have become a GBV activist and have been in the spotlight for more than a year. I am a relentless fighter to help GBV survivors. When I started Usikimye, the goal was to sensitize and educate people on SGBV, march, protest and push the state to set up shelters.
My first case was of a woman who reported her husband to the police and then didn’t have a place to go. As I became present on social media, more victims – survivors – started sending messages to me slowly on different platforms. These are people who were ready to leave their abusive relationships and marriages.
My rescue journey started with me hosting three women survivors in my home. That gave me a wake-up call as I saw the need to have a safe haven for women, a place where they could stay longer.
As women’s rights activists, we do estimate that one in three Kenyan women [has suffered] or will suffer GBV in their lifetime, which is a big number. Last year in March, I established a shelter for women GBV survivors, which coincided with the spike of GBV due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The well-guarded shelter is a regular home in an undisclosed location where women and their children are hosted for 90 days. There they live a normal life involving work and leisure. Children play in the home too. Survivors are trained and equipped with financial literacy skills, basic economics and first aid. They learn to make pottery and learn to cook for a living.
There are two therapy sessions a week, which include yoga and dance. These sessions provide a way for survivors to express themselves and start their healing journey. As for the children, we use art therapy and music therapy to help them heal. After 90 days, women can leave. If they don’t have a safe place to stay, I help them get a place where they can start a new life. We source house basics and encourage them to use the skills we have given them to earn a living.
So far, we have many success stories. Under Usikimye, we have handled more than 450 cases in the past 10 months alone. About 30 survivors are men. Men are removed from abusive situations, but for the time being I do not have a shelter for them.
I often hear of the GBV cases through social media pages where I’m easily reached. We usually receive several calls every day through our hotline. Whenever, at any time, I receive a call from somebody who needs help, my duty is to go pick them wherever they are and get them help.
One of my most disturbing cases last year was the [molestation] of a six-month-old girl. The baby was [molested] by a neighbour and even her legs were dislocated in the process. It is sad the baby will never walk. Cases get worse by the day. We had a case of a man attempting to [molest] a four-day-old baby, something we cannot fathom. That is my daily life and I no longer know what it is to rest.
My days are crazy. I am either receiving GBV survivors’ calls or walking around courts, police stations, hospitals and rescue centres, depending on the cases. I am calling on the government to fight GBV and empower survivors. It is sad girls as young as seven are getting impregnated by their fathers and uncles. Some may never return to school.
Usikimye (Don’t be Silent!) I call upon everyone suffering GBV, or knowing about a victim, to speak out. You are not alone. I am with you.