In Summary
  • Abuse: Having a partner who uses alcohol or other drugs significantly increased the likelihood of abuse

We recently concluded analysis on data we collected in Eldoret on the psychological factors associated with intimate partner violence experienced by women living in and around the town. Last week I had the opportunity to present the findings of this study at a conference in Lagos, Nigeria.

Compared to previous reports such as the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), we uncovered astonishingly high rates of intimate partner violence in our study.

Over four out of five women who participated in our study reported having experienced at least one instance of emotional, sexual or physical violence in the 12 months preceding the study.

They reported being slapped, insulted, threatened, beaten to within an inch of their lives and being forced into sexual acts that often resulted in serious injuries leading to hospitalisation.

The most interesting aspect of this study, however, was the finding that two major psychological factors in the women increased their risk of being battered by their partners.

Firstly, holding traditional gender role attitudes significantly increased the risk of being battered. No matter how educated or otherwise empowered a woman happened to be, the fact that she agreed to take a subordinate role in the family hierarchy, instead of offering some protection from violence, actually increased the risk.

Previous work has suggested that women with more egalitarian attitudes had a high risk of being battered, but this was not immediately evident in our study.

Instead, we found that differences in gender role expectations were more significant in predicting intimate partner violence than a woman’s egalitarian gender role attitudes.

In other words, when a woman had expectations of an equal relationship, and her partner had more traditional patriarchal attitudes, the risk of violence escalated significantly.

Secondly, women who used more passive coping styles were at increased risk of violence from their partners. Surprisingly, even those who used the available social support structures such as extended family, religious organisations and women’s groups were not protected from violence.

In our study, it seemed that having been abused or traumatised as a child also increased the risk of being battered, a finding that is consistent with what others have reported in the past. Further, having a partner who uses alcohol or other drugs significantly increased the likelihood of abuse.

Interestingly, the age or level of education in both partners seemed not to affect the difference in gender role expectations, confirming an important principle in psychology that one’s upbringing plays a huge role in determining their personality and behaviour as an adult. In other words, the child is indeed father to the man.

The key message from this small study we conducted is that despite efforts by government and NGOs geared towards reducing intimate partner violence, there seems to be a missing link in the area of assertiveness and gender role expectations.

Empowering women without dealing with their role expectations and those of their partners is actually likely to increase the risk of violence, rather than lowering it.

Perhaps a new approach is called for. We may need to start focussing on changing attitudes towards what constitutes violence in a relationship, since the traditional role expectations seem to condone it in at least some circumstances.

A focus on the male partners may in fact have more impact.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; twitter @LukoyeAtwoli