Violence against women, especially in its extreme or protracted form, quietly and completely destroys the living victims, even as death plays out as the worst outcome of the vice, experts warn.
“There are many people who experience abuse-related trauma from which they might never recover and therefore live under extreme pain or have their cognition and values completely altered,” says Hiram Chomba, a psychotherapist.
Some victims even end up taking their own lives rather than live with the trauma, according to studies by the World Health Organization on women’s health and domestic violence against women in different countries.
For some who struggle on, however, life is cruel.
“The few women who come here after being violated by their husbands or boyfriends agree to counselling and physical treatment but are reluctant to pursue justice,” says Nurse-in-Charge Sabia Mwinyi
In a small room on the second floor of a building housing an organisation that provides sex workers with sexual and reproductive services in Mtwapa, Kilifi County, 39-year-old Bella Awinja rests her head on the office table, her tears spreading fast on the veneer. It was a rather convivial chat – less of an interview – until she buckled under the weight of her words loaded with anecdotes from a dark past.
An ordeal back in 2016 had played out in her mind almost as painfully as the actual act. On the fateful day, Bella, a sex worker, ended up in a room with a client, only for two other men to join them. The three friends beat and raped her for the better part of the night before taking off.
She tells Nation Newsplex that even more painful than the violence she undergoes frequently is that she ended up doing the job she does in the first place.
Married at the age of 23 years, family life took off to a rocky start. “I am the one who looked for work and provided for his mother, wife and children. If I failed he beat me senseless,” says Bella, who discovered after she moved in, that her husband was already married to another woman.
In 2016, when she couldn’t withstand the violence anymore, she took her two sons and left her matrimonial home in Bungoma County and travelled to Mtwapa to begin a new life, with the help of a friend.
Coincidentally, Bella was the third women of the three, that had spoken with Newsplex, to narrate horrifying stories at the hands of their husbands and how it pushed them to the streets only to be welcomed to the next stage in a cycle of violence.
But that shouldn’t come as a surprise because almost half (47 percent) of women age 15-49 have experienced either physical or sexual violence, according to the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) 2014. Among those who have ever been married, husbands and partners were responsible for more than half (55 percent) of the sexual violence cases, while ex-husbands and ex-partners accounted for more than a quarter (28 percent) of them.
Dr Griffin Manguro, CEO of the International Centre for Reproductive Health, Kenya (ICRH Kenya), an NGO that offers sexual and reproductive health services to sex workers in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties, says the high number of women with a history of domestic violence that are currently in sex work is not unique to the group but rather a reflection of the prevalence of the vice in the country.
He, however, explains how the violence can drive a woman into sex work. “Gender-based violence (GBV) is associated with chronic stress and because of that many of them might end up leaving the house or being divorced or being single, which in turn is associated with sex work and increased risk of HIV infection.”
When women who are entirely economically dependent on their husbands are driven out by violence, they may consider sex work as a way of getting quick money before they find other alternatives. That was the case with Jane Anyango, 29, who began sex work in 2017 after she escaped a physically abusive marriage. “I got pregnant at age 16 and had to drop out of school to marry him. When it was time to move on, I had nothing of my own, not even education,” she says. She believes she could have gone back to school if her husband had been supportive.
Such violence, Dr Manguro says, brings about low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, leading to inability to adjust to society. As a result, most people who do not recover from their experiences are unable to look for a job in the normal sense, hence sex work.
Close spousal control and monitoring of their behaviour is an important warning sign and correlate of violence in a relationship, observes the KDHS 2014. According to the survey, more than half (53 percent) of ever-married women said their husbands were ever jealous or angry if they talked to other men.
Insisting to know where the wife or partner is at all times and frequently accusing her of being unfaithful were also mentioned in 41 percent and 23 percent of the cases, respectively.
Dr Manguro also notes that there is a direct link between abuse and risk to HIV. In Africa, he says, the risk of acquiring HIV among women who have been violated is higher than those who have not.
The ICRH Kenya also runs a gender-based recovery centre in partnership with the Ministry of Health that provides comprehensive, quality care for survivors of rape, sexual violence and sexual exploitation. Four in five of those who visit the facility, based at the Coast Provincial General Hospital, are girls under 16 years.
Nurse-in-Charge Sabia Mwinyi says that while GBV is prevalent even among older women, such potential clients have not opened up to professional help like what they provide at the centre. “The few who come here after being violated by their husbands or boyfriends agree to counselling and physical treatment but are reluctant to pursue justice,” she says.
In one instance, they assisted a survivor to relocate from home and sue her husband only for her to ask the judge to drop the case as she had decided to forgive him.
Nearly two in five women (41 percent) experiencing violence neither ask for help nor tell anyone when harmed, according to KDHS 2014.
“In relationships, partners who are less assertive and are more agreeable in personality are more likely to hang in there and persevere or hope that things will get better only for it to become worse,” says Mr Chomba.
In Murder at Home, a Newsplex project that explores the consequences of gender-related violence on communities throughout Kenya, there were several cases in which a partner was killed when either holding on or going back to make up. At least 148 people were reportedly killed, including 106 women and 16 children between October 1, 2018 to November 15, 2019.
Even while most reported GBV cases, including killings, have been perpetrated by men, Mr Chomba thinks that pointing fingers at men is not the solution. “We have to address specific possible courses such as the economic situation, which have more profound psychological effects on men than on women,” he says.
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