By Wachira Kigotho
Today fewer men in Kenya think it is right to beat their wives than it was a decade ago. Correspondingly, even less women are willing to gracefully accept their blows.
At the beginning of this Millennium, two thirds of Kenya men believed that wife battery was justified, even for flimsy reasons. A wife would be beaten if the food she was cooking slightly burned, or if the she answered her husband back.
Thirteen years on, this has changed significantly with only 45 per cent of men saying wife-beating is justified. With this development, it is now safer to be a wife, a girlfriend, or even a mistress in Kenya, especially when compared to Tanzania.
This year’s Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) notes that in the three traditional East African countries, the most violet place for a wife to live is Tanzania where seven in 10 husbands believe it is okay to beat their partners. According to a survey published in the current issue of the American Sociological Review, 45 per cent of Ugandan men see nothing wrong with a wife being punished now and then.
The study reviewed data from 26 countries. Fourteen of these countries were in sub-Saharan Africa and included Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali and Nigeria. Other surveys were conducted in Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
According to study leader Dr Rachael Pierotti of the University of Michigan, the situation is much worse in Nigeria where 81 per cent of married women report being verbally or physically abused by their husbands. Forty-six per cent reported being abused in the presence of their children.
But the situation has started to change with more men rejecting domestic violence, especially in Nigeria where 65 per cent of men recently said they were opposed to wife beating compared to 48 per cent in an earlier study conducted in 2008.
Dr Pierotti says there are significant changes in global attitudes towards domestic violence, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
It is only in Madagascar that most men thought it was necessary to unleash domestic violence on women on a regular basis.
Women are in most instances assaulted by their husbands or girls beaten by their boyfriends for very flimsy reasons such as if the woman went out without informing her male partner or if children were left unattended.
Dr Pierotti says women in sub-Saharan Africa are frequently beaten by their partners if they refuse to have sex with them, argue with them or even if they burn food.
For instance recently, a man in the town of Gweru in Zimbabwe bashed his wife and threatened to stab her with a knife for refusing to teach him how to open a Facebook account. He also demanded to know what she was posting on her Facebook page.
Dr Tom Ondicho, a research fellow at the Institute of Anthropology, University of Nairobi, says that in the past domestic violence was embedded in the culture of silence, but in recent decades, the issue has emerged as one of the most widespread and frightening problems in the region.
In this regard, Dr Ondicho seems to differ with Pierotti that wife beating in Kenya or elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa has subsided.
“There is an underlying consensus that the incidence of wife beating has increased substantially in the last few decades,” says Dr Ondicho in his study on battered women in Nairobi.
But there is general consensus that attitudes on wife beating in recent times has changed as a result of disintegration of traditional socio-cultural norms that “regulated” wife-beating.
But whereas Dr Pierotti views wife-beating in a sociological perspective, Dr Ondicho thinks this battery is motivated by a man’s urge to retain the traditional position of power and authority over women, even as modernity opens up opportunities for women folk.
But whatever the factors, the situation is fast changing from a scenario in traditional society where a man who did not beat his wife was considered a wimp.
Dr Ondicho observes that in modern society men might be still struggling to maintain their traditional image but a wage economy, education, and migration have altered the equation under which women were oppressed and ranked just a notch higher than children in the clan ranking order.
“Nevertheless, the improved status of women and the diminishing role of the extended family in resolving marital disharmony both empower women and render them vulnerable to gender violence,” says Dr Ondicho.
But even under such circumstances, the general attitude about the use of domestic violence has changed significantly among various age-groups in Kenya.
Whereas in rural areas, most men and women would agree that a husband should beat his wife if she burned food, in urban areas, the burning of food was not sufficient to merit a beating. However, the study notes that men and women in urban and rural areas were in agreement that married women should be beaten if they neglected children.
Basically, the change in attitudes towards rejecting wife-beating in sub-Saharan Africa is fronted by young people and, more so, the emerging middle-class. Dr Pierotti found that those who lived in cities and were better educated were more likely to reject wife-beating than those who lived in rural areas and had relatively less education.
There was also evidence that people with access to newspapers, radio and television were more likely to reject wife-beating. “The global spread of ideas about women’s rights and the increasing international attention to the problem of violence against women may be contributing to the striking change in attitudes about this issue,” says Dr Pierotti, a recipient of the Marshall Weinberg Research Fellowship award for her incisive studies on gender inequality.
Even though violence may be decreasing in certain pockets of society in Kenya, there is emerging evidence of increased domestic violence against women in difficult circumstances.
Carrie Hough, a researcher with Refuge Point, an advocacy group on refugee issues, says there is increased battery of women among refugees in Turkana County, North Eastern Province and Nairobi. During her investigation, Hough encountered serious cases of women battery but victims seemed almost helpless.
One told her: “We have to abide by the law, culture and tradition of our community, and according to our community, women are supposed to be beaten by men from time to time.”
She identified risk factors as harmful cultural practices that tend to oppress women even when both men and women are living in difficult circumstances.
All too often, the police are very unsympathetic to battered women. According to investigations carried out by Dr Ondicho, police officers in most cases did not take wife-beating seriously and in many situations, encouraged informal sanctions by persuading the two parties to reconcile, even though wife battery is a criminal offence.
Although some women are making inroads to protect themselves from domestic violence, the road is bumpy for those in urban slums.
A study conducted by Dr Ondicho in Kibera pinpoints legal fees as a major impediment to married women who may want to press charges against their abusive husbands. “Besides courts are often not on the side of victims as suspended sentences and warnings are the most common forms of punishment, resulting in repeat violations,” says Dr Ondicho.
But in spite of these circumstances, women in Kenya and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa have almost cracked the glass-ceiling of men domination wide open through ingenious legal campaigns, education and economic empowerment.
Notably, the 1995 Universal Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women by the United Nations General Assembly opened the floodgates in which women aggressively fought against acts of gender-based violence that results in physical, sexual and psychological harm, threats, coercion and arbitrary deprivation of liberty.
Locally, the new Constitution is a bulwark against violence against women and children. New legislations on inheritance, basic education and governance are providing women with more freedom and basic rights than any other time in Kenya’s history.
But no matter which way one looks at it, women have not acquired their current position on a silver platter but through hard work. Like their counterparts in Nigeria and Ghana where they have almost thrown out men from businesses in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Ibadan and Accra, women traders in Nairobi are becoming increasingly influential.
In Central Province, women are also edging men out in farming activities. These are signals that battle for gender supremacy is not about to come to an end but is bound to continue for a long time to come. With safeguards of international human rights and the constitutionally-guaranteed Bill of Rights for all, it seems new battle fronts will be opened.