A most virulent pathogen than the recent Coronavirus, and worse than HIV has been wreaking havoc, causing mass mortality among women for years, but surprisingly one does not hear of any efforts to develop a vaccine to protect against it, or even a cure for it. There are no Public Health advisories such as, adopt abstinence, be faithful, use condoms correctly and consistently, medically circumcise, wear masks, wash hands with soap and observe social distance. This contagion which has been worsened by COVID-19, goes by the not so fancy name, Gender Based Violence or GBV. Maybe if the pathogen had a scientific sounding name like, secundum genus iniquitas it would be paid more attention.
Over the past year, as the effects of COVID-19 took away lives and livelihoods, there was a marked rise in the reported cases of GBV. A December 2020 report by the National Crime Research Centre indicated that incidences of GBV in the six months between January and June 2020 surpassed by 92% the numbers for the entire 2019! A civil society organization, Centre for Rights Education and Awareness (CREAW) that offers care and support for survivors of GBV, noted that their reported numbers rose from 20 cases per month, to 32. The number of calls to their help hotline increased four-fold during the same period. The numbers of all manner of sexual and gender based violence, be it murder, sexual offences, defilement, grievous harm, physical abuse, child neglect as well as child marriages recorded a spike. This virus of GBV has hit women hard because there is an underlying cause – patriarchal culture.
We trace our steps back thirty-five years at a time HIV was getting firmly embedded into our lives. Heterosexual contact was the main means of transmission and the preferred prevention strategies such as Abstinence, Being Faithful, Consistent Condom Use and Medical Male circumcision raised serious but subtle, gendered questions. Abstaining suggested that unmarried partners in an intimate relationship were supposed to cease sexual intercourse. However, while male partners could easily decide to abstain without any relational consequence, females in patriarchy had little control over their sexuality and were faced with the challenge of non-cooperative male partners demanding unprotected sex. Awkward, psychologically violent conversations ensued, and in some cases escalated to physical violence.
The idea of being faithful and abandoning the culture of having multiple concurrent sexual partners which is tolerated in men, but not in women; opened yet another front for SGBV. The male obsession with female virginity and faithfulness as well as socialization codes that allow for the enforcement of these sexist values, punishes women for what men are applauded for. Societal values allow males to sow wild oats and have multiple female sexual partners as a sign of machismo. Yet the power dynamics re-enacted conceal a more sinister issue. Asking men to drop their multiple sexual partners as a prevention strategy characterizes women as the vectors of HIV. This feminization of HIV transmission has led to stigma, and had a devastating result when a woman loses her spouse to HIV related illness. The husband’s people are psychologically primed to blame the widow thus laying the grounds for stripping her of her property. At times the dispossession follows forced sexual liaison in the name of cleansing, or even culturally sanctioned forced re-marriage.
The use of condoms as an HIV prevention strategy is no less brutal. The decision to use or not use condoms is male-driven. Generally, males were reluctant to adopt condom use even when they knew their sexual behaviour exposed them and their partners to risk of infection. A partner demanding use of condoms quickly led to abusive accusations of ‘lack of trust’ that escalated rapidly to physical violence. The notion that women cannot demand safer sex is embedded in the control of women’s sexuality and denial of sexual and reproductive health rights.
The question of sexual equality was interestingly broached by a radically gender sensitive social marketing campaign. In the ad, two women discuss an intimate sexual relationship one of them is having. The other advises her friend, ‘Weka kondom mpangoni,” (include a condom in the affair) advising that she needs to adopt safer sexual practice with her lover(s). This raised a hue and cry with denunciations for ‘promoting female infidelity’. So far advice to men to use condoms with mipango ya kando had not received backlash. The ad was pulled down temporarily but public health pressure resulted in its reinstatement. However, the patriarchal bias had been exposed. Culture condoned males having affairs but could not countenance the same among women-folk. This cultural psychosis uses a different set of measure and values for men and women in gauging marital faithfulness. This double standard is what leads to sexual and gender based violence on accounts of infidelity and framed crimes related to preserving male ‘honour’. Cases of deranged males murdering entire families got even more common during the COVID-19 pandemic. The culture-religion conceptualization of faithfulness got medicalized through HIV and further deepened trauma to women.
HIV brought out bizarre SGBV cases in its wake like virgin cleansing or virgin cure for HIV infection and AIDS diseases. The virgin rape myth is the belief that having sex with a virgin girl cures a man of HIV/AIDS. Our folktales are replete with myths about virgins-martyrs offered as sacrifices to appease angry gods. Through this culture-based construction of communal acts of contrition, HIV provided an expression of the female (virgin or child) persona as both the conduit for HIV infection as well as the one to be sacrificed for a cure; hence desensitized communities to the atrocity.
If HIV shook the cultural conceptualizations of gender roles and promoted SGBV, Coronavirus further destabilized what had remained of patriarchal privilege, the economic foundations. The latest World Bank economic analysis projects that the Kenyan economy will contract between 1.0% and 1.5%. Traditional image of masculinity is of a bread-winner and family head. COVID-19 devastated livelihoods, jobs were lost, businesses closed and legitimate avenues of earning money were compromised. The impact on the economy affected professionals just as much as it did the lower echelons. Kenya National Bureau of Statistics estimates that 1.7million people were declared redundant due to the outbreak. Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) states that 604 firms sent workers home. The service industry, especially recreation and hospitality suffered the most. Statistics report that more than 2.5 million working in the tourism sector lost their jobs. Loss of jobs meant loss of income and that meant loss of ego and that exacerbated domestic violence. Inability to sustain financial obligations, exposed women to angry, frustrated, disoriented men whose masculinity lay in shreds. Whereas men in the lower socio-economic rungs were able to quickly adjust because it was easier for them to seek work at construction sites, grocery shops, second hand clothes trade, welding and carpentry, mobile money agencies, food hawking or quickly take up boda-boda work; the white and blue-collar workers were more disoriented. This pushed the incidence of SGBV to the higher social classes where it escalated from the usual mental and psychological violence rawer physical abuse. In some of the double income homes, both the man and woman lost their jobs, but whereas the woman was quick to re-package herself and begin selling fruit-juice, soap and vegetable off the back of her car, the man was moping at home – a volcano simmering waiting to erupt into SGBV.
The informal sector that employs mostly youth was severely hit. KNBS states that the rate of unemployment rose, job cuts affected those between 18-35 more than those aged 35 years and above. These young Kenyans just starting off in life have fewer economic ‘shock absorbers’ and are more vulnerable to domestic strife and resorting to violence. As the lock-down and work from home order continued, homes became unsafe for women and children. Going to work and being out of each-other’s way offered both men and women ‘safety valves’ to let off steam. In the crowded houses the probability of violence grew and organizations supporting women noted that women bore the brunt of the violence at home, while others were violently thrown out.
The other culture related problem of SGBV manifests itself in two similar ways. In the traditional context a woman escaping domestic violence sought refuge from her husband’s family, or the extended family. In some traditions once a woman fled the offending man’s house the abusive husband could not pursue her, she was protected by her in-laws. This might seem like a social safety net, but it was a statement to who controlled the ON and OFF switch to GBV. The existence of rules determining when it was kosher to abuse women tactfully set rules for the sport of GBV. In the urban jungles where many of the coronavirus victims found themselves under lockdown, the police were the only place to seek refuge for battered women. Unfortunately, the procedure for seeking police intervention and prosecution is marred by complication, humiliation and is exceedingly long and an equally painful event for women.
The other challenge was that among the higher socio-cultural circles, admission of gender based violence is even more stigmatized. Middle and upper class women who are expected to be empowered and in possession of choices endured more violence and opted out from seeking refuge or legal redress for wanting to preserve the ‘dignity’ of their marriages. In some instances, the mother-in law and parents of the abusive male were the prime defenders of the abuse citing possible loss of dignity of the family. The escalation from passive aggressive SGBV to open physical abuse presented a new challenge to this class, one that they have not had to deal with.
The much anticipated post COVID-19 new normal expected after the coronavirus has been brought under control, will probably see novel ways of earning livelihoods. The coronavirus, just like HIV before it, will shift from the centre of our lives, but the gaping wounds of GBV left behind will continue to fester, and though our society might feel less sick, in reality the underlying cause will have gotten worse and we will be sicker on account of GBV.