Marriage or even mere intimacy puts a woman’s physical safety at risk

By the time a woman in Kenya is 50 years old, her children are most likely already working, in college or at least in high school, and settling into a middle-aged life.

But as the children grow each year, age also increases the chance that she will suffer physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

Data from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) shows that among women aged 15-49, the risk of physical violence is directly proportional to the age of a woman.

For young women aged 15-19, just under a third (31.6 per cent) say they have ever experienced physical violence; the proportion rises steadily with age, such that by the time a woman is turning 50, the majority (52 per cent ) say they have ever been physically abused.

Among ever-married women, the most commonly reported perpetrator of physical violence is the current husband or partner (57 per cent) followed by the former husband/partner (24 per cent), according to the DHS data.

In other words, a total of more than 80 per cent of women who have ever been pushed, hit, slapped or beaten in their adult life say it was at the hands or a current or former husband, boyfriend or intimate partner.

On the contrary, only about 1 in 10 men who have ever experienced physical violence since age 15 mention their spouse as a perpetrator of physical violence. Men are much more likely to beaten by perpetrators in the category of "other" – presumably thugs or strangers.

Such widespread numbers, and diverging experiences of men and women, alarmingly indicate a society in which the marriage institution, or even mere intimacy, is enough to risk a woman's physical safety.

These numbers are corroborated by a recent survey by opinion pollsters Infotrack, which examined the state of the Kenyan family. The survey found that most respondents believe that domestic violence is more prevalent in Kenya than it was 20 years ago.

More than 82 per cent of men, and 74.7 per cent of women, say that violence within today's family setting is worse than it was two decades ago. That more women would have a more optimistic view suggests that for some women, violence has become less tolerable, and they expect consequences or social punishments for men who would beat their wives.

Again, older respondents are more likely to say that violence is worse than it was twenty years ago – possibly because they have experienced it, or have friends who have. Nearly 92 per cent of those aged over 60 say violence is worse, compared to just 58.6 per cent of respondents under 24.

Striking Divergence

The most striking divergence, however, happens in early adulthood – between age 18 and 29. From the data, it appears that intimate relationships for young Kenyans in their 20s are highly disillusioning, either from their own experiences or those around them. [SLIDE 22]

Young Kenyans enter adulthood quite rosy-eyed – a full 35.5 per cent of those aged 18-24 say that domestic violence in today's families is less than twenty years ago.

The fact that they were toddlers, or not even born, those two decades ago is of no consequence; their mental picture of that era is of a darker age. Most of them must be thanking God that they were born in the current generation and not at an earlier, more unfortunate time.

But just a few years later, by the time they are in their late twenties, that optimism has shrunk dramatically by 20-percentage points, to just 15.7 per cent.

It also seems that intimate relationships in young adulthood end up going very much against expectation – either in one's own relationship, or in the stories you hear in your social circles, among your friends or former classmates.

It could also be that young people in their twenties are increasingly aware of cracks in their parents' marriage, and so might be more exposed to violence there. Once they are out of school, they have ceased being "children", so the parents may be less vigilant in hiding their problems from their adult children.

You see a loss of confidence in the data as well – when asked if today's youth are "husband or wife material" those under 24 are the most confident, with 44.6 per cent saying yes; the average between all age groups is 36.2 per cent. [SLIDE 75]

But by the time they are 29, their confidence has dropped even below the average, to just 32.2 per cent now saying that today's youth are husband or wife material.

This is possibly because this is the time one experiences serious heartbreak for the first time, but it seems that young adults lack the emotional tools to get through these situations without taking it too much to heart, hence the dramatic loss of confidence in just five years.

Kenyan society, broadly speaking, leaves emotional counseling to peers; most people turn to friends to help them process relationship disappointment. But these friends might simply be going through the same thing and are also floundering in the dark themselves.

In any case, the data suggests a highly destabilising time, emotionally, between the ages 18 and 29, where one's sense of self, convictions and expectations of life are shaken to the core.

The fact that most people would still go into a marriage or long term relationship in your 30s with so much unprocessed emotional baggage might be the reason today's marriages seem to be struggling.


There are also interesting nuances in the reason given for domestic violence. The majority (56.6 per cent) say that poverty is the main cause of violence, followed by misunderstanding (18.9). Unfaithfulness is the third reason given, followed by alcohol and drug abuse.

Still, this isn't the whole story. It appears that the poorest, most historically marginalised areas in Kenya actually don't say poverty is the main reason for violence in the home. [SLIDE 32]

In North Eastern, the largest proportion of respondents (40.9 per cent) say "misunderstanding" is to blame for violence in the home, "poverty" is given as a reason by just 36.4 per cent of respondents.

Similarly, Coast region gives misunderstanding as a major reason for violence in the home, second only to North Eastern.

By contrast, the regions that blame poverty the most are Western (74.2 per cent), Rift Valley (63.8 per cent), and Nyanza (64.5 per cent). These are a mixed bag, but are certainly not the poorest regions in the country.

Why would poverty "sting more" in Western, Rift Valley and Nyanza than in North Eastern and Coast, which are poorer in absolute terms? It possibly has to do with inequality, and the way human minds process disappointment.

Although wealthier in absolute terms, poverty is more stressful for a family in Western or Rift Valley because nursing unfulfilled ambitions is much more painful to the human psyche than outright misery. The unhappiest are not necessarily the poorest, just the ones with the deepest belief they have missed out on the party.

- The writer is a writer, journalist and executive editor of Africa data visualiser and explainer site