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Covid-19: Elderly women facing abuse in silence


Many in rural areas who live alone have been subjected to violence, rape by relatives including grandsons, extortion

Most in rural areas who live alone, have been subjected to extortion, violence, rape by relatives including grandsons

Friday July 31 2020

When Wambo went public to complain about the behaviour of her elderly mother, it raised eyebrows among a group of her colleagues at work. They were startled.

But the huge response it elicited forced the colleagues to interest in the matte - quite a number had identified with the situation.

And this was her grievance. The mother is diabetic and that requires the family to buy her medication on a monthly basis. When cessation of movement was imposed on Nairobi to contain the spread of Covid-19, Wambo and her siblings were forced to send the medication over to her via matatu, to their rural home in Molo, Nakuru County.

But there was a problem.  Their 75-year-old mother constantly – almost on daily basis – would call demanding for money to treat this or that ailment and not the underlying condition for which they were religiously sending her medicine. 

TURN DOWN

She would turn down offers for this extra medicine insisting on cash.  By the time she went public calling out on her and labeling her a liar, Wambo says she had had enough of the demand for money.  The habit became more pronounced from mid-March, when the Covid-19 instigated containment measures started.

As soon as some containment measures were eased, in particular lifting cessation order for Nairobi and two other counties, the family decided that their eldest, whose hotel business had literally collapsed due to the Covid-19 effects, relocates to their rural home.   

The decision has turned out to be the right one and a blessing.  Their mother’s demands for money stopped almost immediately.  Her health improved and this was evident in her glowing face and bubbly self. 

Prior to that, she lived in the same compound with her 30-year-old jobless grandson and a farmhand. The persistent demands for money and “lying’’ in order to get it, became more pronounced after the Covid-19 movement restrictions that saw the other family members locked up in Nairobi.

Another family in Nyeri County, has gone through similar experience  with their mother who is also a grandmother. Her change of behavior also became noticeable during the Covid-19 lockdown.

PHYSICAL VIOLENCE

The only difference in the situation of the two families is that the community around the family of Rose  a 69-year-old widow, was aware of her tribulations. Her son, who lives with her in the same homestead but in separate houses, subjected her to physical violence whenever she failed to meet his demand for money that would be spent on alcohol. 

The neighbours knew that the 43-year-old man had caused his elderly mother, a former primary school teacher, untold mental anguish.

Mama Rose had been so intimidated and violated that whenever her two other children and grandchildren called from Nairobi to speak to her, she never gave any indication that she was in trouble.

Fed up, a distraught neighbour called Lindah, Mama Rose’s daughter, and exposed what they suspected her mother had been going through for weeks.

“I have not stopped blaming myself for assuming that all has been well with my mother at home,’’ she adds.

“She always sounded her happy self on phone.’’ 

SEXUAL ABUSE

Lindah and her siblings have since, independently, found out that their mother has been subjected to physical violence by their eldest brother.

But they still find it difficult to investigate further claims of possible sexual abuse against their mother by the same fellow.  It is too much to bear.

As Mama Rose’s family grapples on how to deal with the disturbing revelations on violations against their mother, the older woman is yet to open up.

There have been media reports from across the country in which older and vulnerable women and men have had their Sh2,000 monthly stipend from the government’s cash transfer program stolen from them by family members including children, grandchildren and other relatives.

Some of the perpetrators are reported to accompany these old people to the bank and take away the money on withdrawal!

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) against women and girls have spiked and is on the increase since coronavirus struck in March.

However, elderly women – the category of 60 years and above – have also been subjected to the violence including rape, in the home front especially, but this has generally gone unreported.

SUFFERING SILENTLY

Consequently, this vulnerable group has had to endure their pain and suffering silently, in addition to having to deal with many age-related stigma during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

“The reality is that many elderly women have been subjected to violence and rape  by relatives including  grandsons and other people,’’ says Mr Kinuthia Wamwangi, the former Transitional Authority chairman, now Ambassador for Older People at HelpAge Kenya.

Mr Wamwangi says the elderly, especially women, have been losing their monthly government stipend to the abusers who steal it from them through coercion and violence.

Elderly women, mostly in rural areas, who live alone in their homesteads, are more vulnerable and exposed to SGBV even by relatives who arm-twist them into making prejudiced and one-sided decisions to favour the perpetrator like in financial and family land disputes.

FEAR AND STIGMA

A common characteristic among the abused older women, especially at the home front is that they do not speak out about their situation.  

“Violence thrives more in silence and isolation and it is likely that during these difficult times of social distancing, there are elderly women suffering out there,’’ says Ms Wairimu Munyinyi-Wahome, executive director, Coalition on Women Against Violence (Covaw).

Shame, fear and stigma that surround sexual abuse force the women to withdraw into their cocoons, leaving them with emotional and physical wounds. Older women survivors are more likely to fear speaking out compared to their younger counterparts.

“Women are more ridiculed, stigmatised, intimidated and oppressed even by cultural practices including language, especially when they get into certain situations such as when they are violated through sexual violence,’’ Mr Wamwangi says.

“And because of old age, they suffer more stigma and discrimination that drives them into silence,’’ he adds.

PATRIARCHY

Older women – largely in the cluster of 60 and above – were raised in settings where their rights hardly mattered, with little education, prevalent early marriages among other patriarchy, instigated situations and so grew up persevering violations such as physical violence.

“Because of being nurtured in an environment that suppressed their rights, most of these women were oriented into submission, including abuse and violence,’’ Ms Munyinyi-Wahome argues.

“It is within this category of women that testimonies of perseverance to domestic violence abound, mostly for the sake of their children, they say, because there is no social support system that would accept to take them in and shield them from abuse,’’ she adds. 

“In fact, putting up with violence is sadly, a badge of honour for some.’’

In addition to this is economic violence, they lack access and control over resources especially landownership that would help them in making choices on their violence-free lives.

A June 2020, report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), on the elderly and Covid-19 in Kenya says that older people are more likely to be at increased risk and face more barriers related to the pandemic.

MENTAL HEALTH

“These persons may also experience an increased risk of being subjected to GBV.’’

At the same time, in partnership with the government and HelpAge Kenya, UNFPA held a conversation on Twitter, to engage the public on issues that affect the elderly at this period, and how to address them.

Mr Ademola Olajide, UNFPA’s representative in Kenya says that while Covid-19 has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of older persons, the elderly on the other hand can also contribute to sustainable solutions.

The World Health Organisation, (WHO) says that lengthy periods of isolation are likely to have serious effect on the mental health of the elderly.

The relaxation of cessation measures on Nairobi especially, has come as a relief for some elderly GBV victims as families who live in the City can travel home freely again, to take care of them, especially their safety.

To protect Kenya’s elderly during Covid-19 and ensure their safety, UNFPA calls for urgent responses to address the “heightened vulnerability.’’

Among this includes prevention and detection of abuse of older persons using the Nyumba Kumi initiative, as well as monitoring disbursements of social protection funds.