What you need to know:
- Many African girls were brought up to be shy, to always lower their gaze and learn to say ‘Yes’ at most commands.
- These are not the qualities that can help a girl to survive modern marriages, which are prone to domestic and sexual abuse.
An African girl is expected to naturally become a wife. Most of our conservative communities have never condoned the halfway point in relationships and allowed girls to have boyfriends. A phase in a relationship that would, perhaps, help to assess each other’s behaviour before marriage. Even then, it is a phase that poses so much risk to the girls who could easily be left home and dry by dishonourable men.
Having boyfriends was frowned upon and discouraged by many conservative communities to protect family honour. It also protected the girls from exploitation and minimised teenage pregnancies. Those were the days when many African communities lived in communal ways and marriage occurred within families that knew one another and were, in most cases, from the same village. As Africa urbanises, marriage and relationships have become elastic.
Marriages experience modern pressures brought on by the 9-to-5 heavy work schedules, struggles with money, high cost of living and, at times, mental health issues. Many Africans have learnt to adapt to urban life. Hence, school systems work hard to prepare pupils to navigate the modern work environment and the changing world around them. The African girl-child, however, has not had her place in the modern, high-pressure world reviewed. She is still expected to go about it subserviently and at the beck and call of the men in her life.
Many African girls were brought up to be shy, to always lower their gaze and learn to say ‘Yes’ at most commands. These are not the qualities that can help a girl to survive modern marriages, which are prone to domestic and sexual abuse.
The line between being subservient and getting abused is very thin. It is, therefore, important to bring up girls to be confident in themselves and learn to be assertive — an assertiveness that goes together with learning to say ‘no’ when they face sexual harassment, domestic abuse or when marriage shows signs of control and coercion.
Recipe for violence
A partner demanding all your salary every month, for instance, because culture allows him the power to do so, and controls how much you spend your own money is financially abusing you. Remember, you are also an adult who can make her own choices, including what to wear. If he controls your dressing, bear in mind he is controlling. That is a drawback on the relationship and anathema to your confidence as a woman.
If you are not allowed visits to friends or family, whether your partner says so directly or makes excuses to keep you away from other people, that is not love but another form of control. If he is jealous of any men you associate with professionally or as friends or even relatives, that is a red flag and recipe for violence.
A marriage where one party comes in with instructions to be subservient is already one-sided and favours an abusive partner. Marriage should be built on trust, mutual respect and reasonable compromises; a give-and-take principle that is there to enhance a relationship and not to impoverish or used to beat up a partner.
As we mark 16 days of activism on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), girls need to be prepared for relationships, not just in knowing how to cook and clean but also protect themselves from abuse — be that sexual, domestic, financial, emotional, psychological or coercion.
Vulnerabilities of girls and women
Schools and colleges have a duty, first to teach girls and young women the red flags of domestic abuse. There is no point in glossy campaigns on how to fight SGBV when girls have little understanding of the risks they face in relationships and lack confidence and assertiveness to protect themselves. Families and schools must inculcate confidence in girls from a young age and teach them when to say ‘No’ and how to say it if they are at risk of abuse.
The UN estimates that one out of every three women is killed daily. Those statistics include victims in Africa and, indeed, Kenya. I have always been challenged by Kenyan men that they, too, suffer domestic abuse.
However, the numbers of women victims of SGBV globally far outweigh that of men as shown in the UN data. The vulnerabilities of girls and women calls for more protection of them to not only minimise cases of SGBV but help them to gain knowledge and skills from a young age to help protect themselves first.
Let ‘No’ be the byword with which to fight and end abuse against women in Kenya. A girl that grows up with the confidence to say ‘No’ to save herself from abuse is not lacking in ‘marriage material’. In fact, she could be made from the strongest fabric that would help to knit together a better family and society.
Allow girls to grow up being assertive and confident to end SGBV on their own terms and not those of perpetrators.
Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected] @kdiguyo