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Protect women – at all cost

In May 2015, the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act was assented to in Kenya and came into effect on 4 June. With this, Kenya finally had comprehensive legislation that addressed violence within families. However, says Aisha Ali Haji, despite this legislation, Kenya is still failing to protect victims of domestic abuse.

Domestic and intimate partner violence (IVP) is a prevailing problem in Kenya, as in the recent case of Jackline Mwende, a woman who allegedly had her hands chopped off by her husband due to their ongoing childlessness (caused by his impotence). This case caught the attention of Kenyans, especially on social media, when it was also revealed that Mwende had been advised to stay with her husband despite the danger she continuously faced.

The new Protection Against Domestic Violence Act gives extensive guidance about what domestic violence is, defines what a domestic setup is, who can be a victim of domestic violence and the remedies available against domestic abuse and violence. So, legislation now allows for Mwende to receive adequate representation, be given care to deal with her trauma and to see her attacker being prosecuted. However, in a culture that still struggles to detach itself from toxic and violent masculinity, which bestows power on men and creates a power imbalance that is oppressive to women, Mwende, like many women, was ignored until the situation escalated to extreme levels. Only then were the authorities mobilised to take action.

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Women remain vulnerable

Despite this new legislation, Kenya is still failing to sufficiently protect victims of domestic and intimate partner violence, particularly women. If we were to tackle this issue, we would need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the society we live in and honestly discuss how and why ours is a society that allows violence against women to thrive.

In a culture that still struggles to detach itself from toxic and violent masculinity, which bestows power on men and creates a power imbalance that is oppressive to women, Mwende, like many women, was ignored until the situation escalated to extreme levels. Only then were the authorities mobilised to take action.

When Mwende asked her pastor what she should do about her husband’s abuse, she was advised to go back home and pray for him. Why is ours a society in which the health and wellbeing of women, who make up half of the population, are so easily disregarded for the comfort of the other half? When someone is hurt, our first instinct as human beings should always be to remove this person from harm and then to punish those who harm them. However, when it comes to women, we seem to lack this sense of regard and care.

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While legislation is critical, it is only one aspect of a package that needs to be implemented to protect women from violence. For example, the majority of women who experience IPV do not report it. Many fear re-victimisation instead of getting the much-needed care and justice. With the police being the first point of contact, survivors of abuse are often met with disbelief and ridicule instead of support. A woman who is beaten by her boyfriend will often not report it because she is afraid that she will be blamed for ‘allowing him’ to beat her; afraid that she will be shamed for staying – even though women are constantly advised, as Mwende was, to ‘keep trying’, no matter how badly they are treated. Women are afraid that they will be blamed for their partners’ actions, be accused of not taking care of him properly, not understanding his shortcomings – basically,  for not being able ‘to fix him’ so that he can stop being abusive.

Many women who face IPV do not even talk about it to their friends and families because they know that as a society we have little regard for women, especially women who suffer at the hands of men.

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Focussing on the bigger picture

In a recent conversation, my female friends and I discussed how, no matter what issues women face – be it the imbalance in wages, the ridiculousness of a qualified woman often having to face the most unsuitable men in their jobs or in politics, harassment on the street, IPV – we will always struggle to solve them if we treat them as isolated issues rather than as manifestations of the same problem; a bigger problem. We need to look at patriarchy as a whole, at how it is reinforced in so many little ways on a daily basis and entrenched in the systems of our society. We need to tackle the fact that society still positions women as less than men; that it sees women as tools for male consumption and comfort, and as the backdrop on which men’s masculinity hinges, so that men are not ‘real men’ unless they are controlling women.

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When Mwende’s husband cut off her hands because he was infertile, his action was the ‘natural’ conclusion of years of society teaching him that his masculinity is tied to his ability to procreate. When he fails to do that, then it must be the fault of the woman in his life. When Mwende’s pastor told her to go back to her abusive husband, his advice was the culmination of all the subliminal and overt messages from society that imply that women are not fully human and therefore do not deserve the same kind of empathy, care, love or consideration as men. These messages have taught him that it is his duty to always think of the man, even if this means sacrificing the health, wellbeing or even the life of women. When we harm women, we are relegating them to the place where society has placed them: tools to be used, for comfort, care, children, labour and to fulfil men’s desires, but never full humans who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. IPV and violence against women in general is the end result of this.

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The act of radical love

When we really think about it, the solution is very simple: We just have to love women – not just as an emotional thing, but a radical love that is about action; a radical love that makes us rethink our words and actions. We should not just love women for what they can do for us, for the labour they give the world or the ways in which women are in constant service to society. We should not just love them because they are our mothers and sisters and daughters, therefore we have to love them, based on our relationships with them. No, we have to love women and respect that women have a right to be here. The diversity in our backgrounds does not matter.

With the police being the first point of contact, survivors of abuse are often met with disbelief and ridicule instead of support.

The hard part, however, is that to fully love women, we have to start dismantling all the notions and ideas of what women are to us as a society. It is only after we unlearn our disregard of women, see them as fully human and accord them the rights and protection they deserve that we will become more aware and mindful of the harm we visit upon women. Only then will we truly work together towards stopping it.

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This blog post is published as part of an online campaign by the Gender Based Violence Prevention Network, coordinated by Raising Voices, on the theme, ‘Radical love does no harm and allows room for balanced power in intimate partner relationships!’  Join the campaign via Twitter, using the hashtag #VAWFree, tweet @GBVNet or join the conversation on the GBV Facebook page.

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