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FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN?

Women hold on to marriage despite abuse in lockdown

Domestic violence cases have surged during Covid-19 following curfew and stay-at-home directives

In Summary

• Cases of domestic violence are rising as a result of economic hardships during corona-induced lockdowns

• Two women's experiences display reluctance to leave volatile relationships

Illustration depicting gender violence
Illustration depicting gender violence
Image: TOTO ARTS / MCDONALD ORANGI

It was 2 pm when sharp screams of a woman coming from a particular house in our estate filled the air.

The screams were followed by breaking of glasses. Shouts of “I will kill you” and “Baba Zara, calm down” alongside baby cries captured our attention.

But the sounds of Baba Zara battering mama Zara were not new. A neighbour said the sounds are familiar and in recent times, it has happened even daytime.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Hours later, similar screams and sounds of struggling coming from the same house filled the air.

But this time, it captured the attention of several neighbors, who decided enough was enough and they were going to bring the violence to a stop.

Few neighbors gathered courage and stormed the house.

After few talks, it was evident that Mama Zara wanted to leave the house and a neighbour agreed to accommodate her for the night.

She packed a few things as the house help packed the children’s bags and off they went.

But as they left, Baba Zara kept hurling insults at his wife and the neighbours.

That did not go down well with the male neighbours as they pounced on him and gave him a “reasonable beating” before leaving the house.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The next day, Mama Zara left the neighbour’s house to go to her sister’s place. But she instead went back to her "abuser".

She further accompanied her husband to report to the police that the neighbours had assaulted him and demanded they be arrested.

This left an egg on the neighbours’ faces, obviously asking themselves why did the woman go back to her abuser.

DEFENDING ABUSER

Frida Nyamvula is nursing wounds she got from a beating she received from her husband of seven years.

Nyamvula, a teacher at a private primary schools in Kisauni, said her husband changed ever since the work from home directive was issued by the government.

“My husband’s company shut down and they were all sent on unpaid leave. This is when things changed from bad to worse," Nyamvula said.

This meant both the husband and the wife were staying home since the wife was also not going to work as the schools were also shut down by the government.

She said with both of them being out of a job, the couple faced an economic crisis as their finances keep dwindling and they had been using the little savings they had.

“My husband gets irritated with little things. Like we have a two-year-old daughter and when she messes up a bit, he shouts at her and even beats her up. If I try to intervene, the war always turns against me," she said.

Nyamvula cannot count the number of times her husband has hit her and at one time, she even lost consciousness only to regain it after hours.

Ironically, Nyamvula still lives with her husband, despite all the beatings and her numerous trips to hospital.

“He has been a good partner and a father. I believe things will get back to normal once Covid-19 is over and our lives go back to normal," she said.

She said during normal times, the husband comes home late as he is either working or hanging out with friends, so the time they spend together is limited save for Sundays.

The woman has not reported any of the incidents to either the police or a rights group.

These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The question that has existed even before Covid-19 is why victims of domestic violence do not report to the police or ditch their abusive partners.

Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown that holds women back from reporting.

NUMBERS SURGING

The situation has been dire since the first case of Covid-19 was announced and a work-from-home directive issued.

The situation later skyrocketed to worse when the dusk-to-dawn curfew was announced by the government. This literally forced men to be in their houses before 7pm, which was unusual.

The cessation of movement from in and out of three Coastal counties also contributed to the surge of domestic violence.

According to Muhuri, a Coast-based civil group, 25 cases of women who were battered by their husbands in Mombasa were reported to their office.

Kilifi recorded 15 cases, while Kwale recorded six cases. All these cases were reported between March and April.

Muhuri’s rapid response officer Francis Auma said out of the reported cases, only 10 per cent of the women reported to the police.

“Many women are being abused by their partners but they are not reporting to either the police or any civil organisation," Auma said.

"That means a huge percentage of domestic violence goes undocumented and the numbers might be huge."

Auma said most cases are being resolved by village elders or family elders instead of being reported.

He said women also fear societal perception on women who quit their abusive marriages or divorce their abusive and manipulative partners.

“This has given powers to men who know their victims would not leave them or even report to the police, and even if they report, with time, they will withdraw the cases,” Auma said.

Naila Abdalla of Kisauni sisters in social justice said most women are silently suffering in their homes, with nowhere to run to.

Abdalla said most cases are not reported. She said there are many factors that have contributed to more cases to remaining unreported.

“Some of these women do have anywhere to go, especially now since Mombasa is under cessation of movement. So if they leave their husbands' houses, where will they go?" she said.

Abdalla added most women also assume even if they report abuse cases to police, their husbands would walk free.

She further said battered women are not aware of alternative places, such as civil society groups, where they can report and seek justice, and only rely on the police.

“Most human rights defenders have closed down their offices. So unless these victims have contacts of these organisations, then there is no way to reach them and report their cases," Abdalla said.

Abdalla fears the trend might escalate to mental health crisis as most women are silently hurting.

SHADOW PANDEMIC

According to the UN, many countries hit by the pandemic have been recording a surge in domestic and sexual violence cases, and Kenya is following the trend.

They said even though the gaps in violence prevention and response existed even before the pandemic, the crisis had magnified the situation.

The world’s organisation listed financial hardship due to restricted movement and curfew as the major factor.

They also said confinement at home under heightened levels of stress, uncertainty and fear is a recipe for domestic violence.

UN said in the past 12 months,243 million women and girls worldwide had been subjected to sexual or physical violence by their intimidate partners.

According to the UN, only 40 per cent of violence is reported. They expressed fears that with Covid-19, the numbers were likely to grow, with multiple impacts on women’s well-being, their sexual and reproductive health as well as their mental health.

The UN said this “shadow pandemic", if not dealt with, will have a negative impact on the economy.

As a measure, Mombasa county has taken a step by launching a situation room at the Coast General Hospital, which will serve as a call centre for GBV cases as well as a counselling centre.

Out of the hundreds of calls they received in April, the county said 27 calls were serious cases of GBV, mostly domestic violence and sexual offences.

The county has issued a toll-free number, which victims of GBV can call and report the cases and seek help.

Esther Ingolo, director of gender affairs at the Mombasa government, said, “Due to stay at-at-home and the curfew, many cases are not reported.

"The toll-free numbers will make victims call the centres from wherever they are. They can also send messages. Our numbers are free and not charged."

Edited by T Jalio