What you need to know:
- Women who experience violence and abuse are more vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post -traumatic stress disorder(PTSD), and suicidal ideation.
- Ending violence against women will not be achieved by the women's rights movement alone. It must be a collective effort that revolves around helping the victims of GBV.
- Speaking at the Generation Equality Forum that was held in Paris France from June 30 to July 2 this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced Kenya’s commitment to end gender-based violence in Kenya by 2026.
Growing up, *Hannah always dreamed of meeting her prince charming and settling down. Shortly after turning 20, prince charming showed up. He wasn’t what she had pictured, but he ticked most of her boxes.
The first time he hit her, Hannah was just about to have their first baby.
“We used to argue but everyone told me it was the hormones. Then one day, we were having our usual rows when he landed a hot slap on my face. I froze. He seemed taken aback too and began apologising profusely. He also made me promise not to tell on him, especially to my dad who loved me deeply.”
Although Hannah kept her word and told no one, she began noticing a change in her husband. He became very abusive, especially when drunk.
“Our son was barely a year old before he beat me up again. This time, it wasn’t just a slap. I packed my stuff and went home. A few days later, he came with wazee and after putting up a really good show, they were convinced of his remorse. I was sent back to my husband.”
Hannah is now in her 50s. A few months ago, she was attacked by her husband and thrown out of the house. She went to a local dispensary and got medication for a sprained joint. Then she went back to her husband. They never talked about the incident.
“I don’t care about this marriage. I have battled suicidal thoughts. I didn’t endure being beaten up just to become homeless in old age.”
Mental health issues
Experts have identified a strong link between gender-based violence and mental health. In an article published in 2018 by Natalia Linou, a policy specialist on gender at the United Nation Development Programme (UNDP), women who experience violence and abuse are more vulnerable to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, post -traumatic stress disorder(PTSD) and suicidal ideation. Interestingly, the reverse relationship is also true. Ms Linou writes:
“Women living with severe mental illness are significantly more likely to fall victims to violence. In fact, they are six times more likely to experience sexual violence in their lifetime.”
Emmah Kanyara a counselling psychologist based in Nairobi, domestic violence thrives on the struggle for power and control.
“The perpetrator ensures the victim feels cornered, helpless and trapped. This battle happens at the mind first. In the case of an abusive husband, gaslighting and similar forms of mind games come to play. Once the wife is overpowered and feels she has no option but to stay and accept bad treatment from the husband, the violence escalates.”
Ms Kanyara notes that the link between long term domestic violence and mental health issues is irrefutable. An abusive partner has to mentally condition his victim, subtly and gradually, if he is to get away with the atrocities of domestic violence. The ideal for such a perpetrator is when the victim slips into the murky waters of self-blame where she feels she somehow deserves to be violated.
Helping the victims
“Unfortunately, issues of gender-based violence are still discussed in hushed tones. When the victim is mentally unwell, this further compounds the problem as they may not understand the violence being done against them.”
This, according to Ms Kanyara, is where family, friends, acquaintances and the community step in. Some of the signs to look out for are drastic weight loss, insomnia, isolation, forgetfulness, being fearful especially around the abusive partner, constantly seeking affirmation and negative self-talk.
“Although victims may not readily admit to being abused, people who care about them can easily pick up some signs of abuse or of mental health issues. It is important to lend a non-judgemental ear to victims and respectfully suggest professional counselling. Once a victim is ready to leave, you can help them formulate a safe exit plan. Sometimes leaving abusive relationships can be just as life-threatening and staying in one."
With proper planning, a safe exit is the long term solution to domestic violence.
*Liz, city-based lawyer, shares how she rescued her mother from the clutches of her abusive father, probably saving her life.
“From a very young age, I knew my father was a violent man. He beat up mum, insulted us and made our home very hostile. We were helpless as children and even after growing up, there was little we could do because culture prohibits children from confronting their parents, especially their fathers.”
One day, Liz was tuned into a morning show hosted by Maina Kageni and the discussion was on domestic violence. From the conversation, she realised that her father’s violent ways could go on for a very long time. Her mother’s very life was at stake. She had to do something.
“I got a house and moved my mum out of her matrimonial home. There was a lot of backlash of course, but I got her out. That was more than twenty years ago. She is now in her 80s. My father remarried and my mother is alive and whole. She still tells me, Liz, if you hadn’t gotten me out I would have died.”
Ending violence against women will not be achieved by the women rights movement alone. It is a collective effort that must revolve around helping the victims of GBV. We must normalise calling out abusive partners especially in private spaces such as homes, workplaces and places of worship.
Ms Kanyara notes that GBV survivors are often lauded for quitting a toxic relationship while victims are blamed for staying on. In fact, they are erroneously perceived to be choosing to stay.
“No one can choose to be violated. Our human nature is to protect ourselves from harm. For women who remain in abusive relationships, there is more to it than meets the eye. Apart from the mental health issues we have discussed, it could also be a matter of timing. So next time you wonder to yourself, why does she put up with the abuse? A better question would be; how can I help her break free from the abuse?"
Speaking at the Generation Equality Forum that was held in Paris France from June 30 to July 2 this year, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced Kenya’s commitment to end gender-based violence in Kenya by 2026. To this end, he highlighted a list of initiatives key among them; scaling up the national police service integrated response to GBV (Policare), setting up gender-based recovery centres and shelters, establishing a GBV survivors fund as well as capacity building for healthcare workers and the police in responding to incidences of GBV.
Institutionalising GBV response and reinforcing state obligation to protect survivors will go a long way in debunking retrogressive beliefs such as it being a private matter. The blatant lack of accountability has provided fertile ground for GBV to become deeply rooted in modern culture.
Over the past few years, women’s rights movements and activists have been protesting the epitome of GBV—femicide. The president’s promise to end GBV is not a luxurious incentive, it is quite literally a matter of life and death. We must end violence against women now!