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Story Publication logo April 26, 2024

Nairobi to Kigali: How East African Nations Are Tackling Domestic Violence


What you need to know:

  • Emily James*, a Kenyan woman, endured 23 years of abuse from her husband before he disappeared, leaving her with debt and no income.
  • After joining a support program, she regained her self-esteem and learned to make soaps to earn a living.
  • Organisations across East Africa are helping domestic violence survivors restart their lives through counseling, skills training, legal aid, and financial support.
  • Countries like Rwanda have made strides by engaging men in maternal health, criminalising marital rape, and establishing one-stop centres for survivors.

“Thank God he's gone!”

Emily James* sighed when her husband left home one morning in November, 2020, never to return. He had abused her for 23 years.

At the time of his disappearance, she had two children. He left her with a Sh10,500 ($79.70) debt in the form of seven-month rent arrears.  Yet, she had no means of income. For most of the years, he had been the sole provider as Emily managed the home.

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The fresh feeling of freedom was, however, tinged with the fear of being thrown out of the house.

“We were in the thick of Covid-19; jobs like laundry work or cleaning and organising one’s house for pay, were hard to come by,” says Emily, who lives in Korogocho slums in Nairobi County, in the house where her husband left her and the children.

“I was happy he was gone but I was faced with the reality of my children dying of hunger and being locked out of the house. So, I looked for him but couldn’t find him.”

Across the world, women like Emily are hooked to their abusive marriages because only through them do they find shelter, food, education for their children, and a status; a sense of belonging that they are married.

A worldwide analysis by researchers from McGill University and the World Health Organisation (WHO), published in 2022, established that globally, 27 per cent of women have experienced domestic violence.

While WHO provides data on domestic violence against women, it lacks the global statistics for men.

However, a study published in the International Journal of Social and Behavioural Sciences in 2014 suggests a 17 per cent global prevalence of domestic violence against men.

The trail follows in Eastern Africa, where data on regional prevalence covers only women.

For instance, the McGill University-WHO study only showed that in East Africa, 38 per cent of ever-married or ever-partnered women aged 15 to 49 years have experienced physical or sexual abuse from their intimate partners.

Nevertheless, in the recent decade, countries in the region like Kenya have started producing the respective gender disaggregated data through the State statistics agencies.

Emily James (not her real name) during an interview in Korogocho Community Hall in Nairobi on January 22, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group. Kenya.

In 1997, when Emily met her future husband at a greengrocer’s stall, all she looked forward to was a blissful marriage. Then, she was just 17.

All her life, she had suffered. She lost her father when she was only five years old. Her mother abandoned her and her two siblings.

Then, her maternal grandmother who raised her at her home in Murang’a, central Kenya, terrorised her. As a result, she dropped out of school at Class Three. With no hope in sight, the young Emily, who had just turned 13, fled to Nairobi, in search of a better life.

“I got into marriage because of love. I desired love and care. I wanted someone to genuinely love me and take good care of me. That image of love and care that I’d never experienced soon evolved into a blurred visual of horror,” she says.

Her husband was then in his early 20s, she says. For three months, they lived happily together. During that time, he unsuccessfully tried to have a child with her. Emily was secretly taking contraceptive pills. She says some woman had introduced her to the pills and encouraged her to take them until she was old enough to have children.

Finally, they had their first child in 2008, and the second in 2012. Anytime he returned home with food, she says, he would scold her for squandering his money.

“He’d say my work was just eating, eating and eating, and filling up the latrines. I swallowed all that,” she says.

Tired of his constant grumbling, eight months after delivering her first child, she successfully searched for a shop attendant job, earning her Ksh350 ($2.66), daily. She would leave her baby at a day-care after paying Ksh50 ($0.38) for the keep.

It was a taxing job, causing her constant back pains. They would stand for long hours from 8am to 4pm. She says her back stiffened up that she would not bend, forcing her to stop working, nine months later. She was back to fully depending on her ever-complaining husband.

“Every day, he would return home drunk, beat me up before telling me to cook and watch him eat. He would punch me so hard if I attempted to taste the food,” says Emily, who added that she knew nothing about the job her ex-husband did.

When Covid-19 hit, money stopped flowing. He fell behind paying rent, and he couldn’t afford to buy food every day. Then one day, he disappeared into thin air. And Emily was thrown into a whirlwind.

Although the outcome of domestic violence for women and men is similar, like suffering physical injuries or emotional disorder, how it affects them varies.

A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2020 found that men lose self-worth, resort to alcoholism and drugs, and their health is generally poor. The study focused on the experiences of men who had been victims of domestic abuse.

Meanwhile, WHO has a long list of the impacts of domestic violence on women and their children. Based on the facts from the global health body, for women, it goes beyond the seen and unseen injuries to unintended pregnancies, induced abortions, miscarriage, stillbirth, and sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

On the social and economic front, it shoves them into isolation, takes away their ability to work, and care for themselves and their children. Similarly, children raised in violent homes may suffer various behavioural and emotional disturbances. In later life, WHO says, the children could turn into perpetrators or end up being victims of the same violence.

Burden of domestic violence

Nine out of 19 global countries with the highest burden of domestic violence experienced by women are on the African continent. These countries include Democratic Republic of Congo (47 per cent), Equatorial Guinea (46 per cent), Uganda (45 per cent) and Liberia (43 per cent).

Others are Gabon, South Sudan, and Zambia, all have a 41 per cent prevalence, and Burundi and Lesotho, whose rates stand at 40 per cent. The rest of the countries are in Oceania and Asia continents. 

Starting life afresh

Aware of the load of the violence on the survivors and their children, government and non-governmental organisations across the East African region are running initiatives to breathe new life into them.

Emily is a beneficiary of such initiatives.

Soon after her husband’s exit, a friend introduced her to a civil society in Nairobi, which speaks to women about domestic violence and how to rebuild their self-esteem after departing from their violent unions. It also trains them on how to make body and laundry cleaning soaps, and market them.

Fifteen sessions later, Emily was a new person, filled with hope and skills to start her life afresh.

“At the moment, I make liquid soaps for domestic use,” she says.

“I sell in portions of Ksh50 ($0.38) and a week cannot go by without making Ksh600 ($4.55). I also supplement my income with doing laundry work. I have 10 regular customers who I work for every week and each time, they pay me Ksh250 ($1.90) to Ksh500 ($3.80), depending on the work done.”

Dorcas Nyamanya started Xolani Women of Hope two years ago, to give women who have escaped abusive marriages wings to fly.

Xolani is a popular name among Xhosa natives of South Africa, meaning peace or forgiveness.

“We train the women on how to make soap. And out of the 25 women we have trained, 23 have started their own businesses and two have relocated to their rural homes to start selling the soap,” she says.

CEO and Founder of Xolani, Dorcas Nyamanya during the interview at her office in Nairobi on January 22, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

Xolani isn’t alone. In 2021, with financial aid from MasterCard Foundation, Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, jointly with Collaborative Centre for Gender and Development and Groots  Kenya launched a Ksh50 million($ 379.5) Jasiri Fund, to support survivors of gender-based violence (GBV), domestic violence included, to jumpstart their lives.

The fund offers direct financial support to the survivors through personal grants and affordable loans, apart from financing GBV response services, such as legal advisory services, psychosocial support, rescue services and shelter facilities, across 10 counties in the East African country.

Rwanda’s approach

In Rwanda, interventions that engage men in maternal health and childcare have resulted in the decline of domestic violence.

Rwanda Men's Resource Centre (Rwamrec), runs Bandebereho programme in collaboration with the Rwandan government to transform gender norms around masculinity and fatherhood.  They engage men in reproductive health, equal caregiving, and violence prevention. In Kinyarwanda, Bandebereho means role model.

Emmanuel Karamage, project coordinator at Rwamrec, says the men who have gone through the programme have become admirable fathers and partners.

“We engage them through community health workers who are government facilitators. We first train them before we deploy them to speak with the men. Our approach entails forming small groups of 12 couples,” he expounds.

A follow-up survey to establish its impact, found a significant decline in domestic violence among 35 per cent of the couples who participated in the programme, he says.

In Rwanda, lifetime physical or sexual intimate partner violence stands at 37.1 per cent according to data from UN Women.

In Africa, Rwanda is a leader in tackling GBV. It’s the only country in East Africa with fully-fledged and operational one-stop GBV centres. The first was established in 2009, and the government has since increased them to 44, available in district hospitals across the country.

Further, Rwanda's 2008 Law on Prevention and Punishment of Gender-based Violence is explicit on spousal rape, unlike Kenya’s Protection against Domestic Violence Act (2015) which merely mentions sexual violence within marriage as a form of domestic violence.

Rwanda’s law states that both spouses have equal rights to sexual intercourse, reproductive health and family planning. Additionally, it forbids a spouse from having sex with the other without their consent, failure to observe the boundaries is a direct ticket to prison for two years. Kenyan law lacks such clarity and penalty.

Uganda’s strides

In Uganda, community action groups are working with the government to report domestic violence.

“In Katakwi District (in the Eastern region of Uganda), a member of a community action group helped report a case that had been concealed by the family,” shares Dr Roselline Achola, a public health specialist, working at Uganda's Ministry of Health.

“The member came to know of a girl consistently defiled by her father. The mother had left because of constant abuse. So, the father would tell the daughter, ‘your mother ran away from this home, it's like she has allowed me to sleep with you’.”

WHO says sexual violence, particularly during childhood, can lead to increased smoking, substance use, and risky sexual behaviours.  Sadly, the exposure to the violence in childhood leads men into being perpetrators and women, being repeat victims.

Dr Roselline says in every community there are grassroots activists, community health workers and community action groups who help the abused men and women report the violation to the police.

“We know that one of the main challenges in Uganda is that people don’t know the referral pathways for domestic abuse. That is why we use the grassroots activists, community health workers and community action groups to sensitise them and we have seen it yield fruits,” she says.

GBV responders have also integrated diversity and inclusion in their anti-domestic violence programming.

In Uganda, United Nations Population Fund, target refugee women in refugee districts.

It has established 14 women safe spaces across Arua, Moyo, Adjumani, and Kikuube, the four refugee hosting districts. At the safe spaces, the survivors receive individual counselling, participate in monthly group therapy sessions, and engage in psychosocial support activities like knitting.

Committing domestic violence in the country is a crime that sends the perpetrator to jail for two years under the Domestic Violence Act (2010). In Kenya, under the Protection against Domestic Violence Act (2015), one has a right to claim compensation for any loss suffered or injury caused by any act of domestic violence.

Back to Emily. She says the training on self-esteem helped her discover her worth, value herself and believe in the fact that she can be independent.

“Never in my life did I imagine that I would be a single parent. Everywhere I went, I felt like people were laughing at me until I participated in the training,” she says.

“Now I am confident and I won’t be shaken by anyone who speaks ill of my status. Above all, I’ll never allow a man to abuse me. Never,” she affirms.

*Emily James is a name given to her to protect her from further harm.


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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