How to stay safe from ‘violence of passion’

In the past few months, Kenya’s media houses have highlighted heart-breaking stories of women who have experienced Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).  The stories have shone a spotlight on women whose stories have never been told before: they have been burnt, had body parts cut off, been stabbed and even killed.

IPV is perpetuated by both women and men, though for a host of reasons – which are too numerous to effectively analyse here – women suffer the greatest burden, as do sexual minorities.

Culture as a trigger?

In Kenya and around the world, cultural practices have made it difficult to challenge the status quo that enables IPV to thrive.  Many women believe that this violence is normal; that not only is violence earned through errors or ‘bad behaviour’, but that if you’re not beaten, then you’re not loved.

There seems to be a lot of myths and misconceptions around IPV that need to be challenged and addressed to change such misunderstanding.  This is where leadership can make a tremendous impact.

These gender roles transcend religious customs as well, continuing to reinforce inequalities among women. Socialisation of women plays a key role in the development of self-concept, how they interact with others and handle situations. Women are often expected to be submissive, subservient, dependant, lack initiative, prioritise the family’s needs above their own, and to exhibit wamth, love, expressiveness and passivityat all times.

Sins of the past

These internalised values often encourage women to stay in violent or abusive relationships, and need to be actively unlearnt so as to break the cycle of violence. There are a number of disciplines, informed by psychologists, feminists and others, that use theoretical frameworks to identify root causes of violence, and dismantle them.

Many psychologists assert that violent tendencies emerge as a result of intergenerational transmission – that this is a learnt behaviour, usually born from childhood exposure to these same dynamics within the family of origin. It is also generally accepted that that violence is directly linked to an individual’s ability to maintain power and control in a relationship – both as it is, and how it is perceived.

Abusive individuals may suffer from unresolved childhood conflicts, abuse drugs or alcohol and have mental or emotional distress linked to diminished self-worth.  Some schools of feminist thought support this contention, but others also believe that IPV is as a result of patriarchal systems in society that create toxic entitlement within men who then seek to claim ownership over women.

A question of power relations

There is an intersection between the aforementioned psychological and feminist perspectives: they both address power dominance and need for control of the relationship by the abuser.

Psychology’s “socialisation to abuse” conceit is, however, different from the more patriarchy-focused feminist argument in that it examines a wider array of reasons that might influence an individual to become violent in their relationships: childhood experiences (incidences of abuse & unresolved childhood conflict), personality, intergenerational patterns (patterns of abuse from family of origin) and learnt behaviour (has one learnt violence tendencies based on what they have observed from their parents).

Whereas feminism looks at societal constructions that influence violent behaviours this include gender roles that society dictates for both women and men – one in which the bigger, stronger, masculine gender is not only entitled, but encouraged, to subjugate the other.

IPV carries adverse physical and emotional effects on women. The physical dangers aside, women who have experienced violence at the hands of a partner are carry a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues as a result when compared to women who do not.

Ailments like depression, low self-esteem, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse can be far-reaching and all-consuming if not managed effectively. Consequently, the collective obligation to end IPV is a human rights issue… one that warrants immediate intervention.

Just as patriarchy and history create enabling environments for IPV, religion has a critical role to play in propagating the cycle of violence: women are perceived as the weaker sex in a number of religions, which institutionalise the notion that women should be dominated by men.

Not the weaker sex

This attitude pervades all else - regardless of the challenges people might experience in abusive relationships, getting a divorce is often stigmatised. Society shames women who have walked out of a marriage, which creates a silent subjugation for the many who ‘hang in there’ from fear of experiencing discrimination or being perceived as a failure.

This can change. It must change. Society should create awareness of identifying and understanding IPV. Young people should be sensitised to the red flags of abusive individuals and violent relationships before they are of dating age.

Access to medical and legal support for survivors of IPV should be ubiquitous, and opportunities to speak out should be readily available. Ending IPV demands a systemic approach, for the fight will not succeed if boys and men are not engaged in the process.

There is need to promote positive masculinity and address negative narratives that perpetuate violence. It starts with education, but it must be accompanied by action.

Ms Kuboka works with Youth Changers Kenya