I first learnt about domestic violence as a 7-year old. The neighbor was screaming in the middle of the night and the next morning my parents were talking about it in hushed tones. I put together that the neighbor was being beaten by her husband regularly. It seems the whole neighborhood knew and far as I know no one really seemed to do anything about it. At that young age, I could not really process the situation well enough to understand what it meant but later on I remembered it and thought how strange it was that no one really intervened. The family was isolated and they had dogs, which were said to be very dangerous. I personally never made it past their gate entrance for fear that I would be mauled by one of the huge beasts which barked incessantly and tugged at their chains.
The next time I heard about domestic violence, I was in high school. My desk mate told me that her aunt had problems with her husband. We shall call her Mary. Mary had been married for about 5 years when her husband who previously drank mildly, started getting drunk every night and coming home to beat her. Mary was beaten to the point that she had broken ribs and at one time a broken arm.
However, after too many trips to the hospital, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She decided to join a Karate class. She learnt self- defense while slowly enduring the beatings by her husband. One day, when her husband came home after a long drinking spree, he as usual started a fight and threw blows at her. Mary decided she had had enough. Using her new-found skill, she beat her husband to the point that he became unconscious. Then she took him to hospital with the story that he had been attacked by thugs. Once he recovered from his injuries he never beat her again.
In my teenage years, this story was triumphant and I relished in it. To me it was the epitome of revenge. The world over, men have lorded over women, and this was a good example of how women should react in the even that they found themselves in abusive relationships. I had not idea how complex things could get.
While in college, I repeatedly heard male classmates state that they would never marry an educated woman because she was hard-headed and insubordinate. Educated men glorified the “olden” days when women did as they were told, sat with children, served their husbands, stayed out of the way and every now and then were “disciplined”. Some of the African literature I read alluded that women needed to be beaten by their husbands every now and then, to help the man re-assert his authority over her and strangely to show love. I read these words with sadness and as I grew up made a conscious decision not to be in such a relationship.
I find that many men and women in Kenya still take domestic violence very casually despite the statistics that are thrown at them. While women still make a huge percentage of the victims, now men are also on the receiving side. It is believed that women from a town in Central Kenya beat up their husbands. The disturbing thing about it is that neighbors are slow to react, and there seems to be no knowledge of what to do when neighbors are fighting. Last week my sister sent me a whatsapp message that her neighbor was beating his wife, my sister did not know what to do. However she was brave enough to knock on the door after the shouting had died down and ask whether all was well. Of course the lady at the house said she was ok, even though she probably wasn’t.
In Kenya there is a culture of keeping out of other’s relationships. The police will not investigate cases, which involve relationships as these are considered ‘private affairs’. This is why a couple will fight the whole night and hurt each other and the next morning just walk around like all is well. Sadly, most men and women still view domestic violence as justified in some cases – as such they see it as a disciplinary action that should not be interfered with.
In addition, the twisted nature of violent relationships makes it hard for outside intervention. Most men and women who stay in violent relationships are unlikely to leave even after listening to wise counsel. Many people who intervene are also accused of trying to sabotage a relationship and therefore tend to stay away. That aside I find that there is really no place to report domestic violence and the police are shy about getting involved in couples problems. It is dangerous to knock on the door and ask what is going on as the violent person could be wielding a weapon. It is no wonder then that most people turn a blind eye to domestic violence.
Unfortunately, there is no law in Kenya against domestic violence. There is a bill that has been drafted but the law is not enough. There are male MPs who are still opposed to the bill against domestic violence. Their reasoning is still that domestic violence is a sign of love (especially when the woman is the victim). This is a sign that we still have a long way to go before we can resolve issues of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is a cycle that leads to damaged lives and death is some cases. Would we all stand aside if it were a sister or brother being beaten to death? Would we watch our daughters and sons lives destroyed all because they are in a cycle of abuse?
There are organizations that assist men and women who are in violent relationships, including The Women’s Hospital, Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), local NGOs and some religious organizations. The idea is that if we continue to feel helpless about the domestic violence that is happening at the neighbor’s house then the neighbor will also feel helpless if the same were to happen to you. Thus domestic violence will continue to exist in the society.