Suddenly she was no longer the 14 years old girl I used to play with.
Meg was a strong girl, and I admired her. She was a year or two older than me, but in school, she was a year behind me. The schools' policy was that if you failed to meet some minimum marks outlined, you repeated a year in the same class. Meg, therefore, was unfortunate to lag in school. While we were not neighbors, we used to meet during the school holiday as I visited my auntie.
Let me describe Meg. She was a burst of energy on two feet. Beautiful. Classy. Even at that tender age, you could tell she had a sense of style. As a last born, she had elder sisters and brothers who spoilt her, so she was among the lucky girls who often had a new pair of shoes of dresses. She had the most beautiful smile, and I looked forward to school holidays when we would meet. We would share teenage stories of boys, teachers… well, whatever teenagers talk about. I remember her in a beautiful blue dress that she had worn for her sister’s wedding. It was the most beautiful dress I had seen; hence, it stuck in my mind. We would exchange stories, gossip before running away to do some house chores, then meet up again. I don’t recall us communicating during the school term, and it never mattered. Childhood friendships were so precious, no baggage, you got what you got. It never made a difference when I joined high school, and she was still in primary school. I had even more interesting stories to share.
During one of the school holidays, she told me she had decided to drop out of school. I was surprised. I knew dropping out of school could not be a good thing and wondered what her parents had said about it. Apparently, everyone was on the same page. According to her, the family had understood her frustration. She was now 17 years old, and she did not pass to go to the final class of primary education. She would move away to stay with her brother’s family, undertake a vocational course, and later start a business. I was sad to see her leave but knew we would somehow see each other when she visited her home even if not so often. I also knew having a vocational course would be a big boost for her and less frustrating than the academics. Possibly she would become a great businesswoman sometime.
We did not see each other for about a year, and when we closed schools for the December holiday, I was sure I would see her at least during the Christmas festive season. However, through some family friends, I gathered that all was not well. I inquired about her from her relatives and gathered she would not be coming home.
I later pieced together the story. Several months after Meg moved in with her brother’s family, she had met a young man, fell head over heels in love, and had decided to get married. Legally she was already of age of consent. The main problem, her age aside, was that the family of the man was not in good terms with her family. Meg’s siblings hit the roof! Being the last born and a favorite of the family, they were not going to allow her to “waste her life.” The family forcefully took her back home, kicking and fighting, and she was physically assaulted in the name of discipline and embarrassed in front of her family. It was an all-family affair to set her ‘straight.’ She was made to swear she would never go back to that man. I can only imagine how traumatizing this was.
Nonetheless, nothing can stop two people in love. To date, I have never figured out how they communicated as there were no mobile phones then and communication in the village was either face to face or through the post office. She acted all remorseful, and with time the ‘curfew’ on her was loosened. She even got permission to leave the house to lay flowers on her late brother in law’s grave as she had not managed to attend the funeral. That was her ploy to elope and linked with the man. They ran away to Nairobi. Her family was furious! Her siblings blamed her mother for having let her out of the house. The anger with her family simmered for long, and it took many years for them to accept the marriage.
I did not see her for many years. When I finally met her as a young mother of two children, she was a shadow of her former self. She was no longer the 14 years old girl I used to play and giggle with. She was no longer the vibrant young woman that I knew. Suddenly, she was all ‘mature’ but sad woman. The smile was gone from her eyes. She was not comfortable relating to me or any of the old friends, and I have only met her few times since then. Like many friendships of younger age, this one lost its flame. Being the kind that finds it hard to let go, I struggled with the distance. Eventually I realized she had moved into a different life and it was okay.
Even at a younger age, I remember meeting her and getting disturbed by her appearance. It may not mean much, but I kept wondering if she was happy. Even more, I kept wondering if she regretted her decision to get married. Even if she did, would she come back to her family? My assumption is NO. She was shamed and disowned. She was not going to prove her family right and come back, crawling and admitting her mistake. It also meant she needed to get rid of the ties that she had then, as she possibly saw all of us as judging her and the ‘mistake’ she made.
I share this real-life story (name and details changed to protect ‘Meg’) because it gave me a very great lesson that I find useful in my work on violence against women and girls. My theory is that her family shut the doors for her, and even if she wanted to turn back, she would not know how to venture back. She would need to keep at it whatever she went through. I try to be conscious of not shutting doors on women and girls going through different experiences. In particular, women undergoing intimate partner violence is one of the complicated relationships to understand, and many will keep asking “why can’t she leave?” I have learned to give women space to make their decisions, change their minds, and still know I will stand with them if they change their minds again.
It is not in my place to judge. One of the most difficult things for a human being to hear is, “I told you!”. Maybe you strategized and planned how she would go about ending an abusive relationship or exiting a dysfunctional marriage, or you loaned her money to hire a car and transport her stuff; then she calls and tells you, “it is okay, do not worry; we are working it out.”
From the outside, it is easy to see the cycle of violence and how she may be blind to the cycle when experiencing some good time with the abuser. It is tempting to wash your hands and shut the door on someone who seems not to be making a decision. However, I challenge myself to let the person know, and I will still stand with her whatever she decides. When all is said, the decision is hers. Sometimes all your gut feeling is telling you she is making a mistake, and there is a fat chance you are right, or you could be wrong.
Still, let her realize the door is still open, and if she comes back you are ready to listen (again). Even more important for families not to shut the doors on their siblings when they do not agree with their decisions. One needs to know that there is a place she will be accepted and listened to. She does not need to try to prove a point and be silent if the violence continues. Easier said than done. But I recommit myself, as we commemorate #16daysof activism that #Istandwithher.