After enduring two years of torture and enslavement at the hands of an abusive husband, Lenny Kebirungi decided she could take no more. “Why can’t you at least do one thing right?” He asked me. “We had been having an uncomfortable protracted supper with my husband, then he made debasing remarks about me, my cooking, my role as a woman, my failure to bear a child, my looks—Oh God, he even sneered about my family,” Lenny emotionally narrated her story to me. This was a daily occurrence which she painfully kept silent about.
“My marriage was characterized by beating, enslavement, torture, abuse; I sought permission from my husband if I had to go anywhere,” Lenny went on. “I was not even allowed to pursue further studies. To add insult to injury, my husband also took away my salary; he was an alcoholic; a womanizer, thus putting me at a risk of contracting HIV-AIDS. But I always thought things would change and gave him ‘one more chance’ until I almost lost my life as a result of the beating.” After two years of torture by her husband, 47-year-old Lenny Kebirungi from Bushenyi district in Uganda decided to break the silence and seek legal redress by reporting the abuse to police. Her husband was adamant. “Now that you have reported me to police, you can get married to them,” he told her.
This was an act of tremendous boldness for an African woman, who was taught to ‘suffer in silence and bear it like a woman.’ What Lenny did next was even more audacious: she decided to dedicate her life to empowering other women so that they would not have to endure what she had gone through. And now, despite the disapproval she attracts even from her own friends for being “too pushy,” she is improving gender relations in Uganda one woman at a time. Her dedication and tough stance on issues of violence against women have earned Lenny the nickname ‘Matembe’ after the fiery and outspoken women’s rights activist Miria Matembe who vehemently proposed castration for defilers in Uganda. “Miria Matembe is indeed my role model,” Lenny remarked.
Lenny Kebirungi (her maiden name means ‘good things’ in her ethnic language) is the fifth child in her family. A woman full of character and charm with a radiant smile, Lenny has raised and nurtured many children in the last 20 years. Fifteen years after her breakup from her husband, Lenny ‘miraculously’, gave birth to a son, Jeffrey; now five and a half years old. “I believe God blessed me with this child because He appreciates my work for the disadvantaged women,” she commented.
After her marriage ended, Lenny decided to go back to school. Originally a holder of a Diploma in Secondary Education, Lenny now has a degree in Education and a Master’s degree in Gender Studies. “I knew that education was the most powerful weapon which could propel me to achieving my dream of changing my community. I decided with determination and focus to pursue further education from my modest resources,” she explained. Some years ago, Lenny endured a new challenge: she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which resulted in a delicate head operation that was successful. “My head and skull was split in six pieces and opened,” said Lenny, as she showed me the scars that seemed to have healed well.
A paralegal aide when she formed the Mubende Human Rights Group in 1996, Lenny has now seen many abuse cases resolved through her effort. “I sacrificed time, money to follow up cases with authorities; the community slowly began to understand that women too have rights and that there is a law protecting them,” she said.
Today, Lenny is at the helm of different women’s activists groups in Uganda. The chairperson of her own community-based organization, Women In Developmental Concerns Coalition Mubende (WIDCCOM), Lenny runs the ‘Women’s Reception Centre,’ which offers legal aid, information, and safe refuge to abused women. Lenny is also the assistant governor for Rotary Club (District 9200).Her belief that women need to be independent and self sustaining inspires Lenny’s work as an entrepreneur and a senior lecturer at Mubende National Teachers College.
Due to Lenny’s charisma, persistence and hard work, ActionAid International is considering partnering with WIDCCOM in reaching out to women in Mubende. “What keeps me strong is the passion for women. I was empowered but overpowered by gender relations. I wanted to work for the overpowered women, create a situation where women are empowered and independent to challenge the status quo,” Lenny asserted.
Lenny’s visionary ideas have created challenges. Her friends think she defies the African culture and feel she is above what she should be. She lacks adequate resources to achieve her dream. She sometimes feels she does not give enough time to her son. “The women I am working for keep pulling me back. One woman once stormed my office with stitches on her neck to report the abuse case, but when action was taken against the husband she came back pleading with the police to release him or else she [would kill] herself.” This is one of the many surprises Lenny has experienced in her work: abused women come back pleading for the release of their abusive husbands. She attributes this to lack of knowledge and empowerment. “The women have inadequate information that can’t take them to the level of decision-making.”
Lenny reminds activists that the journey of women's empowerment has started, but changing and reconstructing peoples' attitudes is a long process. However, she strongly believes that at one point, women will be liberated from social, economic, legal, and political bondage. Despite the challenges and accusations she has endured, Lenny’s dedication to work for abused women is unwavering: “Nothing makes me feel good like when a woman who comes crying leaves my office with a smile on her face.” Lenny concluded.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.