Last year, whilst attending a self-empowerment session on intimate partner violence, I found myself watching a terrifying video.   The video showed a pregnant lady being physically abused by her husband.  Her lips were swollen and her face dripped blood, but this did not deter the husband from throwing kicks and blows at her.  When she tried to escape, he dragged her across the floor and back to the house.  In the background of the video, I could overhear a neighbour saying that this lady had continuously undergone abuse at her husband’s hands.  Efforts to assist her proved futile, and she’d failed to co-operate with the Police to see her abuser charged, as he right deserved.  The poor woman had become ensnared in a cycle of abuse, apologies, and reunion.

 

I closed the video, sickness welling in my stomach.  I had only one question: Why do women stay in violent relationships?

Gender-based violence is any act of threat, force, or coercion targeted at someone because of their gender.  This results in physical, sexual, economic or psychological harm.  Violence can occur either in public or private spaces, and forms of gender based violence include – but are not limited to – rape, intimate partner violence, early marriage, Female Genital Mutilation and verbal abuse.  Women are mostly vulnerable to violence because of unequal power relations and negative socio-cultural practices that subordinate them.  The Kenya Gender Violence Recovery Centre notes that in over 90% of the reported cases, men are the perpetrators.

Women face violence from all spheres, including within the family.  This can be from parents, older siblings, or spouses.  The World Health Organization estimates that 30% of women experience intimate partner violence.   Additionally, 38% of women’s deaths are attributed to their violent partners.  Unfortunately, most violent partners view violence not as abuse, but as discipline; as if their wives are children, or disobedient pets.  Women are abused for any number of reasons, but some of the most frequent justifications from abusers stem from blame: that she has failed to complete chores, questioned financial decisions, failed to conceive, stepped out of the house without permission  amongst other reasons.

Such intimate partner violence is degrading to physical and mental health, and sends both an implicit and explicit message to the women affected that they are worthless.  This adversely affects self-esteem, outlook on life, and ability to participate in socio-political and economic activities.  Women suffer pain from injuries, permanent disability, sexually transmitted infections, and death.  The trauma created by witnessing and experiencing violence affects can last long after the abuse has ended.

Gender-based violence is unambiguously wrong, a violation of human rights, and the most overt example of discrimination against women.  There are a number of legal provisions that prohibit any form of violence against women.  Kenya’s Constitution, Penal Code, Sexual Offences Act (2006) and Anti-FGM Act (2013) safeguard the right of women to live a life free from discrimination, violence, inhumane treatment, and torture.  Other legal frameworks like the Convention of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Maputo Protocol, amongst others, emphasize the need for gender equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women.

Despite these legal provisions, many women do not report abuse waged against them.  This is fuelled by a culture of victim-blaming and normalization of violence.  Some women view violence as a given in any romantic partnership, and do not see the need to report it.  Others don’t know where to report – either because of a lack of information, or unavailability of services in their locality.  For others, financial dependence traps women in violent relationships, leaving them with nowhere to go and no means to provide for their children.  Others are afraid of external judgment, given that it is common for people to ask women who have endured abuse what they did to attract violence, why they are not personally responsible for seeking justice against their abusers, and invalidating their life experiences.

In instances where women report, the structuring of legal systems can make the process traumatic for victims.  Evidence shows that women who are interviewed in the first instance by unsupportive or untrusting Police officers are less likely to proceed with the case.

Some women may commence cases but later withdraw or fail to show up in court to testify due to fear, or coercion from family members.  A woman may be condemned for reporting her husband as disloyal, or deemed malicious, as if her suffering is somehow code for wanting ‘to get the father of her children in trouble’.  Accordingly, staying in abusive relationships can be rationalized by some women as a necessary survival mechanism against a more insurmountable or distressing justice process. 

Society must condemn violence against women.  Men need to be at the centre of this fight by embracing positive masculinity.  This will bring them to an understanding that violence is no proof of masculinity.  Women need help getting out of violent relationships.  Rescue centres that will help women report violence, seek justice, and recover will aid in the fight against violence.  Shelters will also be of help to shield women with financial difficulties.  Eliminating gender-based violence is a vital step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  To quote the former United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon: “I call on men and boys everywhere to join us.  Violence against women and girls will not be eradicated until all of us - men and boys - refuse to tolerate it.”

 

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