Traditional gender roles and power imbalances between men and women in Kenya continue to contribute significantly to the high rates of Gender-based Violence (GBV) within marriages.
In a new survey, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) has shown that 41 per cent of women who have been married are likely to have experienced violence since the age of 15, compared to 20 per cent who have never been married.
While other factors, such as societal norms and cultural beliefs, are contributing factors, the statistics portray a society where power imbalance in marriages has created an environment where men feel they have the right to exert control over their wives physically and emotionally.
GBV is a serious issue in Kenya. It has seen many women and girls undergo physical, sexual, emotional, and economic abuse and harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriages. It can happen in any setting, including the home, workplace, and community.
Dubbed the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), the KNBS report indicated that 54 per cent of women had experienced physical violence from their current husband/intimate partner, followed by 34 per cent from their former husband/intimate partner.
“Thirty-four per cent of women in Kenya have experienced physical violence since age 15, including 16 per cent who experienced physical violence often or sometimes in the 12 months before the survey,” KNBS said in the 2022 report.
Bungoma tops the list of counties with the most cases of physical violence. The percentage of women who have experienced this form of GBV since they were 15 stands at 62 per cent in Bungoma and lowest in Mandera County (9 per cent).
It is worth noting that while men are also victims of GBV in Kenya, they experience slightly lower levels of physical violence.
The report’s findings showed that 27 per cent of men have experienced physical violence since age 15, including 10 per cent who experienced such violence in the 12 months before the survey.
Teachers are the most common perpetrators of physical violence against men and women.
“The most common perpetrators of physical violence among men who have been married or had an intimate partner were teachers at 28 per cent. This was followed by current wives/intimate partners (20 per cent) and former wives/intimate partners (19 per cent),” read the KDHS 2022 Survey.
Similarly, among the perpetrators of physical violence against women who have never been married or had an intimate partner, teachers (33 per cent) and mothers/stepmothers (25 per cent) topped the list. Teachers (46 per cent) and schoolmates/classmates (22 per cent) were the most common perpetrators of physical violence against men who have never been married or had an intimate partner.
The report, however, indicated a decline in the percentage of women who experienced physical violence from 20 per cent in 2014 to 16 per cent in 2022 – at least in the last 12 months before the survey.
“Over the same period, the percentage among men declined slightly from 12% to 10%,” said the report.
A worrying trend has emerged, nonetheless, where violence among women increases with age. Approximately 20 per cent of women aged 15-19 have experienced physical violence since age 15, compared to 42 per cent of women aged 45-49.
Besides physical abuse, sexual abuse is another significant problem within marriages in Kenya. Many men use their power to control their wives and force them into unwanted sexual acts leading to physical and emotional trauma for the women involved.
Approximately 30 per cent of women in Bungoma experience sexual violence from their partners, followed by Muranga County (24 per cent), Homa Bay County (23 per cent) and Embu County (22 per cent).
The Survey found that the most commonly reported perpetrators of sexual violence among married women or those with an intimate partner were current husbands/ intimate partners (71 per cent) and former husbands or intimate partners (19 per cent).
In addition, the most commonly reported perpetrators of sexual violence among men who have ever been married or had an intimate partner were current wives/intimate partners (63 per cent) and former wives or intimate partners (32 per cent).
The causes of these GBV cases in Kenya are complex and multifaceted. Factors such as poverty, lack of education, and cultural attitudes that condone violence all contribute to the problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also exacerbated these cases of GBV and made it more difficult for victims to access support services.
With many people spending time at home with their spouses or partner, the number of GBV cases recorded in Kenya in 2020 rose significantly.
Between January and June 2020, GBV cases had increased by 92.2 per cent compared to those recorded between January and December 2019, said a 2020 report by the National Crime Research Centre.
What worsened the situation was the economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic. Many people lost their jobs, others experienced salary cuts, and poverty levels increased. All these factors exacerbated the existing power imbalances and led to increased violence.
Additionally, the closure of schools and other safe spaces has left many children and young people at greater risk of abuse and exploitation.
Over the years, the government of Kenya has taken steps to address GBV, including passing laws and policies to protect women and girls. For example, the Gender Violence Recovery Center (GVRC) was founded in March 2001 and since its inception, it has supported over 50,000 survivors as of March 31, 2022.
GVRC has been instrumental in National Legislation enactment in the field of Gender-Based Violence, particularly on the Sexual Offenses Act 2006 policy and in the development and revision of the Post Rape Care (PRC) form gazetted in 2012. GVRC participated in the drafting of the National Gender Policy and inclusion of the GBV curriculum in the Nursing Diploma curriculum, among other national documents.
Similarly, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2015 offers protection and relief for women victims of GBV.
However, enforcement of these laws remains challenging, and many perpetrators of GBV continue to go unpunished. This has seen Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations step up to provide support to victims of GBV and raise awareness about the issue. However, more must be done to address the root causes of GBV and ensure all victims have access to justice and support services.
There is a need for more comprehensive and coordinated efforts to combat GBV effectively in Kenya, such as sensitisation and awareness campaigns.
The government and other organisations should launch campaigns to raise awareness about GBV and educate the public on how to prevent and respond to it, targeting both men and women and different age groups.
The government, civil society and NGOs should work together to provide training and capacity building for key stakeholders, such as the police, health workers, and community leaders, to help them better respond to GBV.
Equally important is further research and data collection on GBV will help the government and its stakeholders understand the problem better and inform policy decisions.
The same goes for implementing programs to empower women and other targeted groups economically and socially to reduce their vulnerability to violence.