Women knock over the old order

Saturday February 18 2012

By CAROLINE NJUNG’E [email protected]

“If they (men) want to be heads of the house, let them be responsible; if you’re not responsible, you’ll get a beating.” This was the unapologetic view of Rukia Subow, Maendeleo ya Wanawake chairperson, following the recent cases of husband battery in Nyeri County.

On Saturday last week, Kenyans woke up to the cringe-worthy sight of the stitched up and swollen face of Simon Kiguta, 40. The father of two from Nyeri alleges that his wife of 12 years slashed him with a panga as he lay in bed asleep. She then locked him inside their house and left him for dead. (READ: Husband lucky to be alive after panga attack)

There was uproar following this story, with Mr Nderitu Njoka of Maendeleo ya Wanaume leading the pack. (READ: Central Kenya ‘top husband-beaters’)

He blamed the rising number of cases of husband battery on a “female superiority complex”, adding that the emphasis on women’s empowerment had made women believe that they could control their men.

Abdicated his role

But women are not having any of this. As one Daily Nation reader, Ms Emma Kabiru, put it, unlike what Mr Njoka would have Kenyans believe, the recent cases of women beating up their husbands is in retaliation against today’s man who has abdicated his role as the family head.

“Mr Njoka would want us to believe that wars in homes where men are victims is a battle of gender supremacy; that it is the feminine gender trying to take up the position reserved for men in families ... What he dares not say is that cases of men abdicating their roles as family heads have also been on the rise in the region (Central Kenya).”

While conceding that domestic violence has no place in our society, Ms Kabiru observed that, “in our society, this barbaric act only becomes the talk of town when tables turn and the traditional batterer becomes the battered”.

Judging from the animated discussions on social media and other platforms, she is not the only one who holds this view. The general view, especially among women, is that even though women have always been victims of battery, their suffering in the hands of men rarely gets documented, nor does it receive as much attention as the recent cases have.

“Women are the real victims of domestic violence, but their battered faces never make it to the front pages of newspapers,” Pamela Anyango, another reader, wrote.

Ms Kabiru also feels that demonising the accused women isn’t going to stop women from battering their husbands. According to her, what the Maendeleo ya Wanaume chair, and others who share his sentiments, should do is get to the core of what is really driving women to commit such acts of brutality.

“What Mr Njoka needs to do is to make men understand that family headship comes with responsibility, and that respect is earned. He should tell them that they risk losing their God-given role as family heads––and maybe a few teeth––if they don’t meet their obligations,” she concluded.

The transformation

According to Mr Shadrack Kirunga, a counsellor with Petra Counselling Services, the transformation we are seeing has to do with the changing roles of men and women and the shift in how we award status today vis-à-vis traditionally.

“Who is a successful woman today? Is it the good wife who takes care of her family and husband? Or is it the one who succeeds in business or professionally? Mostly likely, it’s the latter,” he says.

However, the answer to the question of who a successful man is has not changed much. According to Mr Kirunga, he is the one who can successfully compete in the market place and provide for his family according to the standards set by the society in general and the locality he lives in, in particular.

“The complication then is, since the woman also has her feet in the market place, she’s a step higher, and the men have to double their efforts to stay ahead,” he says.

No, he doesn’t think that this phenomenon of women battering their men happened overnight.

“Women in general have endured long years of abuse in many forms from their men. The main enabler of this has been their economic dependence on men,” he observes. But this is not the case any more.

Naivasha MP John Mututho seems to share his sentiments. In a recent television interview following publicity surrounding the cases of husband battery in Central Province, he said that men had had it coming for a long time.

“After 20 years of suppression, (by men) women have burst into flames and they are saying it in a way that men can understand,” he said.

Winnie Kitetu, a clinical psychologist with Nairobi Mental Health Services, agrees that women are trying to send a message to their men.

“It’s a cry for help. They are telling the world that things are not okay; they’re trying to make their men see sense,” she says.

She observes that while most couples marry for love, there is more to marriage than love which you cannot “eat”.

“Some men have neglected their responsibilities – every woman goes into marriage expecting to benefit from it by getting protection, food for her and her children; when she doesn’t get this, she’s likely to rebel,” Ms Kitetu says, even though she points out that violence has no place in marriage.

Fast dying

Obviously, the traditional woman who persevered in the face of misery, and took everything that her high-handed husband dished out, is fast dying.

Today’s woman, Mr Kirunga says, has been progressively empowered, first economically and then psychologically, to believe in herself, to have more confidence. This seems to have disempowered men in some ways and made them vulnerable.

“At an individual level, it will depend on the specifics of the man’s situation, but most likely this empowerment of the woman is a culmination of abuse, neglect and humiliation, heightened by the fact that his wife covers his roles as well as hers.”

This could then lead to men feeling inferior which, in turn, leads to escapism through alcohol, affairs or drugs. Though Mr Kirunga does not think this is necessarily the trigger for the rising cases of husband battery, it is important to consider that women are at a stage where they are no longer willing to take this lying down.

It is also worth noting that the actual violence is mostly taking place in the lower income brackets.

“Among the higher classes, the women are challenging men in their traditional domains of having multiple partners. Again, the economically dependent woman had no choice but to accommodate the other women in order to get support,” he says.