Kenya has for a long time had an intimate partner violence problem.
A past report from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey reported that intimate partner violence was so normalised that many women actually gave instances in which it would be justified.
They cited instances like ‘burning food’, arguing with partner, neglecting the children, going out without permission, and denying the partner sexual intercourse, as legitimate reasons for intimate partner violence.
These attitudes persist in our society despite the huge steps we have made to increase knowledge about this kind of violence and legislation aimed at eliminating it.
Even in enlightened circles, it is common to find support for intimate partner violence. In everyday conversation, extremely violent imagery and demeaning words are used in reference to intimate partners. Education does not seem to erase these attitudes.
In a study we conducted in Eldoret several years ago, we identified certain factors to be associated with the experience of intimate partner violence.
A difference in gender role expectations, gender role attitudes, use of passing coping styles, childhood trauma, and partner substance use were the factors most likely to be associated with intimate partner violence.
During this Covid-19 pandemic, control measures have included severe movement restrictions and night-time curfews, which have increased the interactions between partners in the home.
Given that the attitudes justifying violence have not been significantly eroded over time, continuous close contact is amplifying frustrations related to the socio-economic and emotional impacts of this pandemic and the response measures, further increasing the risks exposed by the factors we identified in our study.
In my opinion, our Covid-19 response must now begin to include strategies to address the risk factors for intimate partner violence.
Our messaging must contain information clearly pointing out that violence is not a sustainable means of solving our problems in any setting.
Further, those in positions of authority must model appropriate behaviour by avoiding using violent language and gestures, and publicly demonstrating respect for both women and men, including their partners.
In addition to current interventions targeting substance use and misuse, more intense action must be taken to address differences in gender role expectations and gender role attitudes.
We need to discuss relationships as partnerships in which two people come together to make life happier and better for both of them and the family they make after that.
An intimate relationship must not be presented as an exploitative relationship in which one partner is ‘used’ while the other one derives all the benefits.
Additionally, supporting people in relationships to develop more active coping strategies and clearer communication skills would help reduce the conflicts that lead to intimate partner violence.
Finally, addressing the emotions that emanate from childhood trauma, which has been largely normalised in this country, would go a long way in reducing violence.
We are bringing up children in environments that communicate to them that the stronger person must always get his way, and the weaker one must always yield. This needs to change.
If we can bring up our children in safe environments that are free of violence and abuse, we will assure future generations of a more peaceful and happy society.
Lukoye Atwoli is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Moi University School of Medicine. [email protected]