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Why women stick to violent spouses

Lady Speak
 Stakeholders protest on Nairobi streets on July 24,2015 to hand over a petition on protection Against Domestic Violence Bill

The call came through at 11:45pm. I had slept earlier that day so I woke up with a start. My childhood friend was on the other end.

“I am dead,” she sniffed.

I was now fully awake.

“Sam hit me so hard I think I have lost an eye,” she whispered.

That was my friend Cynthia talking about her loving husband Sam. I paused for a moment thinking I was dreaming, after all it was at night. Cynthia, a nurse, and Sam, teacher, had not-so-smooth a marriage and we thought their fights were the ‘normal’ issues in any marriage until that night.

“Where are you?” I inquired, now my heart beating with fear. “In the baby’s room under the bed. I hope he doesn’t break the door to kill me.” At least she had the survival instinct. She survived that dark night.

But the following day she went to work with swollen bloodshot eyes, forehead and cheeks. When colleagues asked her what happened she brushed off their concerns saying she fell off a boda boda. No more questions asked about how strange it was to be hurt just on the face as the arms and legs were unscathed.

A few days later, three of her friends met her over tea and told her how vital it was for her to stop this violence and pointed out that a person who caused such grievous harm did not deserve to live with anyone, let alone our friend Cythia. We told her it was not healthy for her to raise her children in such a violent relationship. She took a long moment before stating that she was not leaving her husband. She feared the unknown.

“Look at me, at my age where do I go? How will I live alone or raise my three children? How will I pay rent and take care of other bills?” she asked looking at us, her friends, accusingly. Clearly, we did not understand her situation. “I don’t want to spend my old age alone. If you want to know, I am better off with this abuser than living alone,” she abruptly ended our conversation.

This nurse may be glued to her violent marriage because of various reasons, especially financial difficulties, but there are others who have everything going for them but still hang on despite the physical, mental and emotional harm the relationship subjects them to. One such woman is an accountant with a major bank in Nairobi who has dated an abusive man for nearly ten years. She lives in her own apartment which she just finished paying mortgage for.

The boyfriend visits and they fight over small issues which snowball into violence; and he beats her in her own house. “We are tired of this,” says her friend, “we have told her to end the relationship but it is like she is stuck to the man with super glue.” To continue putting her down, the man convinced her that it was time to have a baby.

With a baby in the picture, the violence has become worse. “Who do you think will love you? I am the only one who can stand you as you are useless,” the man says as he beats her up. Her friends have taken her to a relationship counsellor to help her put everything in perspective but it has all been in vain. She is not going anywhere either.

There are many women in the same situation as the accountant and nurse who lack the will to move away from a toxic relationship. The two have lost self-esteem, says Dr Joan Nyanyuki, executive director of the Coalition on Violence against Women.

“They don’t believe they can do better. It is ingrained in them that they are not worth and, therefore, they can’t get someone better than the one they have.” Such women, says Dr Nyanyuki, need intense psycho-social therapy to realise they have a problem. Change needs to come from within. They must accept that they have a problem and work on it.

“When abuse goes on for some time, it reaches a point where the victim is mentally broken. Their life starts disintegrating. Their emotional strength is so depleted that they cannot decide to move from a bad situation,” explains Dr Nyanyuki. The worse thing about the whole scenario is that if there are children involved, they too become victims. The children suffer from secondary trauma. They live in fear and react by most likely being withdrawn or repeating the abusive words they hear at home.

“Thus they become repeat abusers. Girls grow up knowing that husbands beat up their wives and if she is violated, she will see it as ‘normal’.” Therefore, choosing to stay in an abusive relationship for whatever reason including “my children need a father” is not healthy for the children. The environment at home erodes their self-confidence and poorly prepares them for the challenging world away from home. Sometimes moving out, says Nyanyuki, will revive a woman and enable her to realise her full potential.

However, putting an end to the abuse by moving out requires a lot of courage. It is easier to stick in their with excuses such as being financially unstable, fear of being ridiculed for being a divorcee or just fear of being alone after being used to being in a marriage or relationship giving the decision life. There are those who have left it all and moved on to start a new life on their own.

One such woman who made the courageous move is lawyer and blogger Njeri Mucheru. After discovering her husband’s infidelity, she had started blogging in a bid to rescue the marriage but it did not work. She later moved into her new home with her three children.

In an interview, she said the decision to move on came when she realised the level of stress she was under was too much. She was even hospitalised for depression. Besides being unfaithful her husband of nine years was also disrespectful. “I suffered emotional abuse. I realised it was wrong for me to stay.” She says after months of staying alone, she is convinced she made the right move, “I would rather be alone than being abused,” she says.

And for those in shell marriages and are afraid to confront the situation she advises, “Find your greatest fear and face it head-on. Take care of yourself and also love yourself so much that you won’t allow someone to do bad things to you.” Njeri is a lawyer and financially stable. But making the decision to walk out of her marriage was not easy, she says. The greatest fear is being responsible for your children on your own and running a home alone.

But you can do it. The law is clear about shared parental responsibility, so women who are financially unstable should not use that as an excuse to hang on despite the abuse. Abuse can lead to death. Many fatal endings in Kenya alone are a testimony.


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