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The elephant in the (bed)room : The silent abuse of Kenyan men, and how the society abets it

battered_kenyan_manOn June 4 this year, Daniel King’ori left his Kiamariki village home in Nyeri and headed for the local market.

Nothing wrong with that.

While there he met a few of his friends and they decided to take a few alcoholic drinks before heading home.

Nothing wrong with that either.

King’ori staggered home in the young hours of the following morning, having spent the night away from home.

Something slightly wrong with that.

His wife asked him where he had been, and why, despite being a married man with domestic responsibilities, he had been away the whole night. A quarrel ensued.

Nothing wrong with that, almost.

As tempers flared, his wife found something interesting in King’ori’s pockets: a pack of condoms.

Something very wrong with that.

As King’ori rested his weary limbs abed, a court would later hear, the woman walked into the small family kitchen and grabbed a knife. She then walked into the bedroom, reached for her husbands’s manhood, and cut it off.

Pandemonium.

SERIOUS INJURIES

King’ori was rushed to hospital by neighbours who were attracted to his homestead by his cries. His wife was arrested and arraigned in court, where she denied assault charges. The case is yet to be determined.

What has been determined, however, is that King’ori’s was not an isolated case, as a few days later another man lost his genitals to yet another woman.

What has been determined, also, is that these two incidents have given Kenyans a whole new verb — to bobbit — an Americanism exported to these shores after John Bobbit’s manhood was chopped of by his disgruntled wife in 1993.

As Kenyans made fun of these events in Nyeri, something curious cropped up, though. These men were alleged to have been seriously injured in domestic squabbles that had led to the spilling of blood, but few had stopped to think of the consequences of such violence.

Behavioural scientists last week told DN2 that the manner in which the injuries inflicted on the men were discussed, especially on Kenya’s vibrant social media, reveals the society’s double standards on the  gender-based violence discourse: when it happens to a woman it is criminal; but when it happens to a man it is comedy.

Counselling psychologist Catherine Gacutha had four important words for DN2 over the phone:

“This is not funny.”

“And it should not be treated as such,” Prof Gacutha added.

While the Nyeri incidents trended on social networking sites for the better part of the week, few commented on their social implications. As a caption to a picture of a teary-eyed cat, for instance, one Twitter user joked: “When you remember you have to go back home to your #Nyeri wife” on June 10, 2014. A day later, another Tweep jested that “he is brave he who marries a woman from Nyeri… and sleeps with both eyes closed”.

Their ridiculing of the Nyeri woman was informed by a current notion, propagated mostly on social media, that women from this central Kenya region take no hostages and suffer not fools.

It all started in 2012, when 27-year-old Patrick Kimaru Mwangi was beaten senseless, allegedly by his wife, who accused him of stealing the family’s small transistor radio.

Since then, several other men from the region have been reported in the media as having been seriously injured by their wives or girlfriends over matters that would otherwise seem minor.

SUFFERING IN SILENCE

Some commentators have attributed this violence to frustrations on the part of the women. The narrative coming from this region is that young men have abdicated their traditional roles and are perennially drunk, leaving the duties of managing homes to their wives.

There is also an underlying notion of sexual frustrations, which, when combined with the recklessness of the young men, have pushed women to the corner. And now they are fighting back.

For a long time, domestic violence has always been a preserve of the men, who are regarded as the physiologically stronger of the sexes and, therefore, better equipped to fight. Women, on the other hand, have always been profiled as defenceless victims.

Such stereotypes, backed by little research and advocacy campaigns, have obscured the fact that men are also abused by women in various forms of relationships, from dating to co-habiting and marriage.

Africa, particularly, seems to have been misled by the stereotyping, and therefore there is little research on this form of gender-based violence.

Most of the studies on the abuse of men have been done in the developed world, and therefore can only be used cautiously to make a global comparison because of the diverse attitudes and cultures.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has detailed population-based studies about violence meted on women, but even the most recent, released in 2013, gives us nothing more than a cursory look at boys who are victims of abuse.

However, the WHO’s handbook on sexual violence acknowledges the suffering of men, stating that “five to 10 per cent of men have reported a history of childhood abuse”. The figures are as high as 13 per cent in neighbouring Tanzania, where data is gathered from police reports, hospitals that have attended to the victims, and surveys.

Given that men have been found not to seek medical or professional help on these matters as few would want to acknowledge such attacks as violations of their rights, there may be a huge difference between these WHO figures and the magnitude of the problem on the ground.

But why, the society asks, would a woman turn on a man with whom she may have had children — or just shared intimate moments — with such vengeance?

Prof Gacutha believes that, to adequately answer that question, one has to approach it from both scholarly and clinical routes.

“On a social level,” she says, “women are keeping unhealthy company that gives them poor, toxic and destructive counsel on how to handle their frustrations. Women talk to each other about their frustrations and some of these violent ideas are planted in their minds by their colleagues.”

On a personal level, the psychologist explains, women have become resentful after many years of frustrations in the marriages and relationships that they have built their lives around.

CYCLE OF VIOLENCE

“A woman may feel unappreciated or disrespected after years of investing in a relationship and her partner is not making similar efforts, and then she may decide to remove the object that is being used to make her feel further disrespected; the male organ.”

Such frustrations, when mixed with a lack of proper skills of restraint and healthy ways of emoting, form a potent cocktail of violence and aggression.

“There are women who have been terribly aggrieved but they are able to rise above their anger through inner dialogue,” says Prof Gacutha.

“Such inner dialogue might go like: ‘I cannot do this to the father of my children’ or ‘I do not want to go to jail’ or ‘I have an image of self-control that I must protect and this person has a right to their life and their sexual organ despite the crimes they have committed against me’.”

Prof Gacutha says that after depleting all relational resources to save the relationship, women with proper emoting skills would file for divorce or walk out on the man, while those who have not thought their actions through would cause serious bodily harm to their men, or even kill them.

Interestingly, studies from as far back as the 1970s support the notion that women are just as likely to hurt as men. For instance, sociologist Suzanne Steinmetz’s 1977 survey, titled Cycle of Violence, and which involved 57 families, reported that 37 per cent of both men and women confessed to having thrown object at their partners, 20 per cent having struck their partners with their hands, and 10  hitting them with a hard object.

The disparity between what is happening to Kenya’s men and how it is debated in the public arena is the creation of two groups, family researchers and feminists.

Family researchers, relying on a survey method of observing acts of conflict — called the Conflict Tactics Scale — advance the idea that violence in relationships involves mutual combat between a man and a woman; while feminists, who rely on the accounts of female victims or  reports from law enforcement regarding the men that have been apprehended, perceive violence as an extension of “patriarchal terrorism”.

But critics say the survey format used by family researchers to explain violence meted on men does not encompass gender dynamics in violence, and that feminists exaggerate women’s vulnerability, leading to the trivialisation of problems faced by men.

Feminism has become synonymous with toxic anti-man sentiments, continually reinforced by social stereotypes and the media, that a woman is “a damsel in distress” who cannot cause harm.

BOBBITTING INCIDENTS

Any scientific research showing that women are often aggressors in domestic violence has been fought, especially when the narrative does not fit the woman-is-always-the-victim plot.

In 1975, an American study dubbed National Family Violence Survey, by sociologists Murray Straus and Richard Gelles of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, exposed the academic veil that had distorted the discourse of domestic violence for years.

The two found that women were just as likely as men to report hitting a spouse, and that men were just as likely as women to report getting hit.

In reviewing 286 cases of intimate violence, they expected to find that even when both parties participated in the violence, the women were defending themselves or retaliating. To their shock, however, the data showed that women struck first and initiated violence, whether verbally or physically.

In a 2010 review essay titled Thirty Years of Denying the Evidence on Gender Symmetry in Partner Violence: Implications for Prevention and Treatment, published in the journal Partner Abuse, Straus arrived at the conclusion that women’s reasons for meting violence on their partners were often similar to men’s, ranging from anger to coercive control.

Because of their size, aggressive women cause less grievous bodily harm when they hit, but it is by no means less harmless. They make up for their physical inadequacy by using weapons, such as the knives used in the “bobbitting” incidents in Nyeri; or hot water, acid, machetes and blunt objects.

It is not just spouses that are likely to suffer the wrath of infuriated women, though, as anecdotal evidence suggests that women account for more than half of child maltreatment.

In late 2014, for instance, 37-year-old Janet Sakwe beat her nine-year-old daughter to death over Sh20 in Kayole in Nairobi. A year earlier, in September 2013, a Nairobi court had found 27-year-old Alice Mugwe guilty of throwing her five-year-old hearing-impaired son into a pit latrine at Nyambari market, Lari on June 26, 2009 so as to save her marriage. And in recent times female househelps have been caught on camera torturing and sexually defiling toddlers.

It is clear, then, that gender-based violence is not the exclusive province of men. However, they hog a huge fraction of all reported cases of such violence, at least according to the World Health Organisation, which reports that 45 per cent of women in the reproductive age — 15 to 49 years — have been sexually assaulted, and that 90 per cent of the perpetrators were men. Some of the victims were as young as less than a year old.

A study by Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) in 2014 showed that two in three men believe women “behave and dress in a way that makes men want to have sex with them”.

The findings also noted that one in three men believe that it is not considered rape to force a drunk woman to have sex.

The centre’s executive director Alberta Wambua said there were days when the number of cases of gender-based violence reported at the institution would be “as many as 30”.

The stage, sadly, seems to have been set for men to feel the pinch of having the tables turned on them. Data from the Ministry of Education shows that, in 2005, 620,000 boys and 586,000 girls enrolled in Standard One. Five years later, in 2010, only 558,000 of the boys were still in school, against a girls’ population of 562,000.

The retention rate for girls for the subsequent years looked even more hopeful because, while 62,000 boys had dropped out of school, only 22,000 girls did.

Somehow, our culture recognises women’s capacity for academia and leadership, and to even carry guns in the battlefield, but denies or downplays their capacity to be aggressive or downright dangerous in domestic battles.

 

-DN2

 

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