Hanging on despite the domestic abuse

Many are aware of the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship. But surprisingly many opt to stay put with sometimes disastrous outcomes. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

What you need to know:

  • Esther's death coincided with a period in which cases of domestic abuse have skyrocketed.
  • Data from Fida-Kenya also show a spike in cases of gender violence with 289 cases recorded in the two weeks to May 3rd this year

By now many are aware of the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship. But surprisingly many opt to stay put with sometimes disastrous outcomes. Why do we feel we have to tolerate the violence? Simon Mburu asks these hard questions

In the first shot, she smiled and looked like a happily married woman as she stood next to her husband. In the second photo, she showed her hand wrapped with a plaster cast.

She looked frail, perhaps too frail to show any emotion. In the third frame, she lay dead in a grave. This is the tear-jerking story of Esther Winter Ndeda who died on May 3rd this year after years of domestic abuse.

According to her daughter, Winnie Vannessa, Esther and her husband were the pictures of a perfect couple. But behind closed doors, 52-year-old Esther lived a horrific life. She regularly went to the hospital with broken wrists, spiral fractures, orbital fractures, and even strangle marks.

She would sometimes get beaten to the point of losing consciousness. In her death, her memory is now dominated by a trail of hospital documents and police reports that lay bare the nightmare of assault that was her marriage.

Esther's death coincided with a period in which cases of domestic abuse have skyrocketed. According to the United Nations, cases of domestic violence have increased by over 20 percent globally since March when the world went into lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.


The cases are so many that the UN describes them as a 'shadow pandemic' alongside COVID-19. Locally, data from the national gender hotline 1195 indicates that incidents of sexual violence, physical assault, and psychological torture increased from 115 to 461 in the month of April alone.

Data from Fida-Kenya also show a spike in cases of gender violence with 289 cases recorded in the two weeks to May 3rd this year. The Centre for Rights Education Awareness also recorded 214 cases. The majority of victims have been women aged between 18 and 45.

Why is it so hard for domestic abuse victims to walk away?

Clemence Kizelah.

Clemence Kizelah, a domestic violence survivor, says that the grip of violence is compounded by the belief in the union of marriage, love, and the illusion that the man is irreplaceable.

 For her, it was love at first sight when she met her ex-husband Swaleh in November 2004 at the Pirates Beach in Mombasa County. He was well-built, good-looking, and had cute big eyes. About a month later, in December 2004, Kizelah moved in with him at his house at Barisheba in Kisauni. "I was madly in love. He was a Muslim and I was a Christian. But I was ready to shed blood in defense of our love," says Kizelah.

Her fairytale came to an end when she fell pregnant. Swaleh started staying out late at night. He would burst into a fit of rage whenever Kizelah asked about his whereabouts. At one point, he started coming home only twice a month. "We argued and quarreled. Then the beatings began," says Kizelah. Despite the beatings, she still loved him and hoped that he would come back to his senses. "I couldn't imagine finding another man.

I hoped that he would change and love me all over again. But the beatings kept increasing." One month before she delivered her son, Swaleh beat her up to near death. "I was admitted at Sayyida Fatma Hospital at Mlaleo in Kisauni where I underwent a blood transfusion. Fortunately, the doctors were able to save my pregnancy," she says. Kizelah finally walked out in October 2005. "My son was four months old. I was afraid he'd do something terrible to him. I walked out singing a lullaby to my son. I kept walking and never looked back," she says.

There are women who tolerate abuse out of fear that their marriages will fail and shame them. They don't want to be a divorce statistic or to get condemned by society for failing to uphold their marriage. Children are also a major reason why some women stay.

Caroline Wangari Verkaik.

Caroline Wangari Verkaik, a Kenyan living in the United States, says that she stayed for so long because of her children. "I wanted them to grow up with their father around. But at some point, I realised that children who grow up in an abused relationship end up in abusive relationships as well," says the 2018 Mrs. Pennsylvania US winner.

She had gotten married to *Martin at a colourful wedding that was held in Nairobi in 1995. "I thought I had married the best man to have ever walked the face of the earth. But how wrong I was!" she says. Immediately after the wedding, Martin revealed his true colours. He became very possessive and controlling. "I thought that I was inadvertently making him livid. I even apologised in an attempt to bring him back to his senses. But things only got worse."

Her male acquaintances, friends, colleagues and even relatives were all considered toxic. At one point, he restricted her friends and family from visiting their home. As months passed by, he started monitoring her call log to see who she had called. He would dial back numbers he thought were suspicious. Six months down the line, he became physically violent and abusive.

"There were times when I thought of running away from him. But deep in my heart, I wanted my marriage to work. I guess I also still loved him. I prayed for him to change and stop the violence," says Caroline. In 1996, with one daughter, Caroline and her husband migrated to New Jersey, US. "I was hopeful that he would change once we moved to the US.

But the beatings only got worse. In 1998, I filed for divorce," says Caroline. Going through a divorce was not easy. There were moments she would feel like changing her mind, especially when he played nice. But his behaviour had become a cycle of abuse and apologies. Not even the birth of their second-born daughter could change him. "I realised that he would never change. I had to make a choice. And I just couldn't take the abuse anymore. In December 2000, I took off from him and never looked back."

By this time, she had secured a job as a flight attendant with Executive Jet Aviation, which helped her raise her daughters and pay her bills independently. Caroline says that perhaps she could not have walked out if she had not secured a source of income. "Most of us stay because we cannot financially sustain ourselves or our children. We don't want to suffer financially," she says. "We resign ourselves to the 'Heri nilie kwenye Range Rover, Kuliko nicheke kwenye Boda Boda' fate."


Ken Munyua, a psychologist based in Nairobi, says that the patriarchal nature of the African society means that even women who quietly divorce or disappear from their marriages to escape violence are often roped back in where the presence of a 'good wife' is required. He adds that this is one of the reasons why women stay in abusive relationships as a way of preserving their personal and family social statuses. "If the man holds a prominent position in society, such as pastor or politician, chances of an abused woman telling on him or walking out on him are limited. Women prefer not to embarrass their men," says Munyua.

Some incidents of domestic violence are unpredictable. For instance, there was nothing that seemed wrong with the marriage of Dianah Wanjiku and Richard. They had been married for ten years and were blessed with two daughters.

Dianah was a teacher at a city academy while Richard was a contracted VIP personal driver. Within ten years of being together, the two love birds had bought two plots in Nairobi and were planning to set up residential houses. "I loved him from the moment I saw him. He was neat and full of potential. He was always jovial and outgoing. He had never acted violently towards me or our daughters," says Dianah. Everything was honky dory. It was therefore shocking when one morning in 2013, Richard committed suicide after unsuccessfully trying to kill Dianah and their two kids.

"He had seemed okay that day. He even took me out for lunch. But then later in the evening, he came home seething with this impalpable rage and began trying to kill me and our children," she says. Dianah survived with deep cuts and stitches on her head.

The emotional manipulator

Emotional violence is another common tool of abuse. "This happens quite effectively on both men and women. It involves manipulation and control mostly using money and harsh words. It is triggered using demeaning and humiliating terms," says Munyua. For example, a man may form the habit of humiliating his partner in public as a way to keep her in check.

Also, the woman may say demeaning and embarrassing things to her husband to gain more control. "The intention behind phrases such as 'Wanaume wengine wanajenga na kununua magari na wewe ni pombe na wanawake tu' and 'Huyu mwanamke hana class…hajui kuvaa; si umuonyeshe fashion styles?' is to embarrass, shame, demean, and control," he says.

The men who suffer

But it is not only women who suffer in the hands of abusive partners. Men have been reporting being subjected to psychological torture and physical violence by their partners in national hotlines since March.

The most recent figures from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) show that nationally, 10.9 percent of married men aged between 18 and 54 have suffered from either physical or sexual abuse.

Dan Matakaya.

Police Constable Dan Matakaya is one of these. In 2013, his wife poured acid on him while asleep. "I screamed for help and neighours came to my rescue," he says. By then, his wife had taken off. Dan's face was destroyed, he lost his eyesight and was admitted in the hospital for six months where he underwent corrective surgeries.

"We had our little arguments just like any other normal couple. But we always solved our issues. I would never have imagined that she could do something like that," he says.


Childhood and exes: Take a good look at your exes and identify what their common traits are. Are they batterers or bullies? "As adults, we often seek out emotional situations like those we had in our childhood. If your parents fought, you're more likely to go for someone you will fight with. If they put each other down, you will likely choose guys who make you feel small. If you were neglected, you'll subconsciously go for guys who'll neglect you too," says Dr. Chris Hart, a psychologist based in Nairobi.

Professional help: Breaking the cycle of family violence is an emotional process. Get a qualified professional therapist to help you go through the process, says Munyua. Make a list of the most important items that you must have in a relationship. If you're dating, clearly identify your core needs and pair them off with your partner's character. Then ask yourself if your partner is the kind of man you ought to have. Leave if there are red flags.

Prepare yourself to leave: Have a secret quitting strategy. Prepare your finances, or discuss with a lawyer specialising in divorce matters in case of marriage and division of properties. You may also look for new friends, a new work station and a secure place to live.

The aftermath: You may feel depressed after quitting. But don't go back or act with reckless abandon such as heavy drinking or rebound sex. Acknowledge your feelings and have a professional walk with you.


There are numerous centres that provide psychological support, shelter, and legal assistance to victims of domestic violence. These include:

Mediva Wellness Centre: 0711228904.

Gender-Based Violence Hotline: 1195

Dan Shieshie Foundation: 1196

Fida-Kenya: 0800720501 (Toll-Free), 0724256658, 0722509760 or [email protected] Stations


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