Domestic Violence: A Conspiracy for Silence
I can tell when a woman is suffering. I can see it in her face. She is distant or is slowly detaching from friends and family. She is scared of telling, because she knows she will crawl back. She has nowhere else to go.
Nancy Wanjiru is one such woman. She has suffered violence. One moment she cries on the shoulder of friend, pouring out her ordeal. She gets plenty of advice, and finally decides on a course of action. She will leave her partner, carrying the kids along. But it is only a matter of time. She will soon return to her lavish, yet abusive life.
Her husband is a wealthy influential member of society. But he is unfaithful to her, and batters her whenever she probes about it. So what if he has another wife? As depression sets in, she silently suffers. She feels trapped, blaming herself.
In Kenya, domestic violence is not criminalized. Domestic violence remains deeply entrenched through rites and traditions that are not only physically and psychologically harmful, but which also instil the perception that women are objects to be used and abused. Bride price and wife inheritance are two such traditions, which contribute to increase in marital rape, and the overall poor economic status of women.
Bride price, widely practiced, is paid in exchange for a wife. What was once a token of appreciation is increasingly being comercialized. Parents sell their daughters at exorbitant fees. In turn, the husband views the bride as a commodity!
The girls cannot return to her home when all hell breaks lose! Her family will have used up the money or cattle that was paid.
Wife inheritance is a tradition whereby a woman who loses her husband is "inherited" by his family. She is given to a brother of her late husband. This is irrespective of her feelings, or his HIV- AIDS status.
It cannot be denied that the adoption of the Sexual Offenses Act (2006) was a tremendous step forward in the fight for women’s rights in Kenya. But, its enforcement is flawed. Sadly, due to social stigma, fear of reprisal, ignorance of the law and personal rights, insensitive medical procedures and mismanagement of court cases (Ochich & Aukot, 2008) very few are officially reported or successfully tried in court.
Yes, wife beating is considered acceptable. It is a "sign of love"-a fools love! Religion and tradition demand that women "submit" to their husbands. The police and local administrations dismiss beating as a "private matter". I can't let this happen to me.
As I grew up, I saw women in my family denied a fulfilling marriage-life. Worse, I have an uncle who batters his wife and blames her for it. Two months ago, my cousin was found beaten to death, in her house. If only someone had intervened, whenever she complained of continual battery by her husband!
I resent chauvinist men. I see them as the source of so many of women’s problems. Even the most educated of our men, expect total submission. Watching women’s lives fall apart can drive you crazy. At Mathari Hospital in Nairobi, I have seen depressed women erroneously termed insane.
So how can we decrease the suffering of Kenya’s battered women?
At Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW), abused women find refuge. We offer them free legal representation and counseling. But it is difficult to get the men to come. We often use letters to demand that they appear for mediation, or suffer a law suit. Some relationships have been restored, but most importantly the victims are able to confront their perpetrators in a safe environment and find redress. By encouraging more women to speak out against violence, I have seen them receive psychological support, and heal.
At CREAW, we are also engaging fathers and sons, through sensitization workshops, in order to have them shift from retrogressive ideas. This is crucial because some are the perpetrators themselves, and may socialize their sons to become abusers. We need to break the generational transmission of these behaviours.
I desire a Kenya where all communities advocate for the long-overdue Domestic Violence Bill (2000). If enacted, we will be another step closer to setting our women free.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.