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Domestic conflict surges as corona takes heavy toll on families

Readers Lounge By Mercy Adhiambo and Kirsten Kanja
Social media is rent with stories of people who have had near-death experiences at the hands of violent spouses (Photo: Shutterstock)

Social media stories of people who have had near-death experiences at the hands of violent spouses are chilling. Photos of scarred body parts and videos with acts of battery captured on camera show the turbulence in homes. The long threads of people narrating their ordeals on social media has lifted the veil on a subject brought to the fore by Covid-19.

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Njeri Mwigi, who runs a safe house for domestic violence victims in Nairobi, says cases have escalated during the pandemic. She says they get distress calls from victims crying to be saved daily.

“We used to receive less than eight women at any given time. The number has doubled and includes women who come with their children. We are full to capacity but we still get calls asking if we have space,” she said.

Prof Margaret Kobia, Cabinet Secretary for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs, said more than half of the victims of domestic violence do not report the cases.

Patricia Mueni, a victim of domestic violence, said for a long time, she was silent about the horror she was going through because she was ashamed. Even when her husband held a knife on her throat and threatened to slit it open, she stayed.

“I only left when he hit me and broke my two ribs. That is when I knew for sure that one day he would kill me,” she said.

Prof Margaret Kobia, Cabinet Secretary for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs (Photo: David Njaaga/Standard)

She said his aggression got worse after he was laid off from his work as a porter in Industrial Area, Nairobi, as a result of the impact of coronavirus.

“He was irritable. Everything I did was wrong. He would even hit the children,” she said.

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Ms Mwigi attributes the rising cases during Covid-19 to financial frustrations and the closeness that spouses have with their aggressors.

Police spokesman Charles Owino said they noted an increase in the number of people reporting cases of domestic violence over the last few months.

“We have noted a significant increase in domestic violence cases. I cannot give the exact figures, but the number has risen,” he said, highlighting a case in Umoja, Nairobi, where a woman stabbed her husband to death last month.

Dr Josephine Omondi, a psychiatrist, said the increase in such cases is likely to be from lack of an outlet to release stress.

“People in their normal routines had outlets for their stress and pressure such as socialising. When these outlets are not available, people tend to make those inferior to them their outlets, leading to abuse and violence," she said.

She advises couples to look for alternative ways to channel their pent-up emotions and energy, including exercising, when they feel too frustrated to talk or communicate.

Cases have escalated during the pandemic (Photo: Shutterstock)

Dr Felix Opondo, a psychologist, said the shift in routine because of Covid-19 had made people otherwise engaged in activities outside the home to feel like outsiders.

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“Families are experiencing a "change crisis" due to the pandemic. Violence tends to occur when a returning family member has not been re-positioned back to the family and as such is considered an intruder in their own home,” he said.

He added that the change in routines disorganises the accustomed family programme and roles.

“Violence may also be triggered when the "displaced" family member refuses to take or accept the new role offered by the adjusting family,” he said.

Families that have inherent tension, he said, were susceptible to violence.

In April, as the impact of Covid-19 was beginning to weigh on the stability of marriages and households, Fida-Kenya launched a toll-free number as one of its interventions to respond to the increasingly high number of gender-based violence cases being reported.

“The nature of gender-based violence cases reported are mostly intimate partner violence, defilement and rape especially in Nairobi and Kisumu....," said the report.

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