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Published:January 30th, 2008 07:57 EST

The pervasive tragedy of family violence in Kenya

By Juliet Maruru

When I first wrote an article on family violence for an online forum, I was shaking in my shoes. My experience with family violence is that it is shrouded in stigma and psychological mystery. Perhaps, I was also terrified of exposing myself to analysis on these lines, but the effort was very much rewarded. I have been able to see what other people think of this very common social malady.

The article itself was inspired by The 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign which was running at the time. This is an international campaign that was started in 1991 to call for the elimination of violence against women. Last year it ran from 25th November to 10th December.

I started the article rather boldly.

I will not tell any man why he should not hit a woman. I would rather talk to you, my fellow woman. It starts with you, you see. How much you respect yourself will determine how much respect you will get. If you feel that being someone's punching bag sits well with you, regardless of the aches, the broken bones and the indignity that you have to carry around the next day and for a few more days to come, then perhaps it is your right to endure ‘mambo ya nyumbani' (Home issues, a euphemism used by many in the Kenyan community to describe things that are wrong but happen in the home anyway). If not, then for the love of life and for the sake of women everywhere, make a stand and do something to protect yourself and your children.

It was interesting that when readers and critics started to respond to the article, the first thing on their mind was that I was making a call for women to abandon their homes. The call to make a stand and protect self and children, in my head, was a call for women to seek information on what really is their value with regards to family and society. Then, they would be in a better position to demand what is rightfully theirs, and, subsequently, also be in a better position to contribute meaningfully to the home and society.

But one reader who chose to name herself Nyapolo called me up with the following points:

Does the author want us to believe that the African woman is empowered enough to up and leave just like that...eeeh? Am about to rubbish this piece as un-researched crap...but I will hesitate because one does not need research in Kenya...just visit the family courts and you will understand why they do not leave! 
1. The land belongs to the man, not the children, not the wife...the man and his clan. So if a woman leaves with her kids- the best choice for young ones- their future is outrightly destroyed, irrespective of the woman’s contribution towards wealth creation.

2. Do you know that in Kenya a father has no obligation towards his child (illegitimate) unless the mother demands it, and more so, that this mother has to prove paternity? Ah, how many times do we see boys deny their kids, even among us here, only later to admit, that is later after the child is all grown?  
Enlightenment does not mean limiting oneself to illogical gibberish by young, privileged women whose only burden has been carrying their parents’ genes. Use these privileges to think hard and deep. So Maruru, go and research further, then come back; we might teach you a thing or two on how to get your message home. Empowering women does not necessarily mean doing things your way (divorce, leaving, fighting back bla, bla) at times; it might just mean staying home but being wiser with the green, and leading the fool on.

Well, that hurt quite a bit. I guess we got back to the stigma and I confused my message with myself. But I was able to separate the two and get back to my point. Yes, oh yes, Nyapolo was right on the counts that had nothing to do with me as Maruru.

The Kenyan woman, and the women from many other countries, is terribly disadvantaged by the paternalistic society, culture and legal framework which favor man first. True, if a Kenyan woman leaves her husband for any reason, let alone for violence or any other kind of abuse, she is likely to end up in financial trouble. So, there is a very urgent need for the law to provide for the rights of both women and children. That will be quite a long process, but it must be done.

In the meantime, what can we do? Well, first we can explore the reason why women get abused and endure abuse, the reasons why someone like Nyapolo would get so emotional on the topic and not offer a solution other than for the woman to endure the abuse because of the financial implications of not enduring.

Another reader said:

I think we will benefit more from people sharing their experiences and practical solutions if this matter is to be addressed. There are always signs of abuse, mostly subtle; but, it just does not happen out of the blue. Most of the women or men just ignore the signs until the volcano erupts. From an early age, I remember my father hitting my mum, the screams, the black eye, the packing and the reconciliation mediated by elders for the cycle to continue. The general consensus was "once you've bought an item, you can't return it to the shops." That happened on some rare occasions but the rest of the time he was the most loving man on earth. How do you convince such a woman to leave? I hated my mum for staying with him, hated him for hurting her and, most of all, hated myself for being born into this shameful family.  
So I left home early, studied hard and now have a masters degree. Problem is, I'm in a relationship with an emotionally abusive man whom I can't seem to leave. He shares the same traits with my father- affectionate, dependent, low self-esteem though they appear and act macho, extremely clever and very manipulative. As I said, I'm well educated and money is not a problem. But, show me how my mum and I might leave our homes, even tonight.

Time and time again we call for education of the girl child as a solution to some of the problems they face. I am on record for making such a call myself. But just what kind of education are we insisting on? As the above reader has pointed out, a University degree has not helped her to break from the cycle of abuse. True, literacy and career skills place a woman in a better position to find employment, or even set up a business that will help her earn income for herself and her family. This might increase her self-value and prompt her to protect herself from abuse. The reader above mentions that there is the possibility of a woman being psychologically unable to break free from abuse.

Another reader said:

a) What seems very typical for abusive relationships (as opposed to single acts of violence or abuse), is the alternating pattern of abuse and care, of harshness and sweetness: where repeated outbursts of violence are often counterpoised by outpourings of regrets, kindness, promises etc. This makes it much more difficult for an abusee to "leave."

b) In a similar sense, a sexually abused child (meaning: a juvenile below 14 years of age) frequently is not the rape victim of the proverbial dirty old man. Much more frequently, the abuser is a person of confidence or of some closeness who makes use of a situation of dependency and need. Often, the abuser will even be the only person from whom the child is able to get at least some substitute of emotional warmth/affection, or at least sweets and some money.

d) To keep a slave from running away, reward him/her alternatingly to the whippings (but sparingly), tell him/her over and over again that s/he is worthless and can be happy to be owned by you, and that s/he would be entirely helpless and destitute if s/he chose to leave the plantation; besides, nobody would believe her stories or at all listen sympathetically. (After all, what really and efficiently fetters a slave are not the manacles around her ankles or shackles around his wrists, but the chains around mind and soul.) The very same pattern can be transferred 1:1 to situations of child abuse or partner abuse. 
e) When punishment and reward are coupled or linked, this creates a very strong emotional bond. Such a linking can be easily abused, and one does not need to be a behavioral scientist to realize this; many abusers unconsciously make use of this simple fact. It is quite a difficult process to rebel against such a conditioning and to unlearn it. But, counter-conditioning or de-programming are possible.

It gets clearer when we talk, you see. People who are in abusive relationships do not stay in them because of economic/financial reasons. The earliest impressions made on our minds live with us for the rest of our lives. For instance, beyond the abuse, I am prone to choose men who are busy and not very present in my life. Why? My father was first of all abusive, and then he completely left my life.

Understanding that I unconsciously 'look' for my father in men, has, well, made me more likely to consciously make a different choice. We are comfortable with the familiar however unpleasant it may be. It has been very difficult for me and I suppose for most of everyone in a situation like this to admit that I, myself, have a 'dependency' problem and that breaking the cycle of abuse begins with me. If I am to have the chance to teach any child, my own or any other, that he/she is a valuable member of the community and does not need to endure abuse to validate his/her existence, I must begin with re-educating myself on my own value.

I will go back to the beginning of my article. The man is not in a position to initiate the push for societal or legal change. The woman is. She almost always spends more time with her kids than the father does. She can teach the girl that she is an important member of the community in her own right, by her own merit. That her value as a person does not need to be validated by anyone’s abuse. Then the woman can teach her son to respect his sister and the neighbor’s daughter.

But the woman really can’t start on this unless she looks at herself and tries to figure out what makes her a worthy member of the society. There is a chance at deprogramming herself from the need to be treated unjustly, and reprogramming herself to being the best that she can be. But she is not likely to succeed at doing this on her own.

In most instances the need for a change hits a woman when she has been hit hard physically, so hard she realizes that she cannot continue as someone’s punching bag. Many a time she may have to be hospitalized for treatment of injuries. There is a need to create a network of social and health workers who can identify such injuries and offer help for the women who need them. Help in the form of both psychiatric medical care and psychological counseling. Help may not always be accepted but the awareness that it does exist can help a woman to begin reevaluating her life’s worth.

As of 2003 there was only one shelter for abused women in Kenya. Since then the call has gone up for more such homes with programs of healing and reprogramming that would be of real value to women in the Kenyan Society.

The Nairobi Women’s Hospital Gender Violence Recovery Unit (GVRC) has been a vital force towards helping victims of gender violence. GVRC has treated more than 7,400 survivors of Rape and Domestic violence since inception. It receives an average of 230 survivors per month and out of these, 45% were children below 16 years while 6% were men. It is now a registered non-profit making, non-partisan charitable trust of the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. (

As to legal aid in resolving family matters in the courts, FIDA Kenya has a pro bono program that not only provides legal advice to the woman but also legal representation in court free of charge. In recent years FIDA has been dubbed the family breaking organization but perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the Emancipation of Africa begun with a little more information. 40/50 years on after most countries gained independence, some are still not doing very well. But I am yet to hear anyone recommend that we go back to being colonized. Freedom and dignity are the essence of the human existence. And this does not always mean divorce or the break up of a family.

FIDA also offers emotional support services. This is because many women who seek their help do so with regards to matrimonial conflict or gender-based violence. Counseling can help a woman or victim of violence to look at their options and decide individually what would be best for their particular situation.

To find out what help FIDA can offer you, go to

All said, the burden of reform rests on women who have the ability to call for, push for and follow-up on social and legislative reforms.