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Story Publication logo May 18, 2024

Shhh… My Wife Beat Me Up! When Men Endure Abuse in Silence



What you need to know:

  • Men, too, suffer frequent domestic violence at the hands of intimate partners, but a deep-rooted stigma and societal expectations of masculinity prevent them from reporting abuse.
  • Intervention programs for abused men are lacking, perpetuating a cycle of silence and suffering.
  • Despite some progress in laws, the bedrock of gender norms enabling domestic violence against both women and men remains largely unaddressed.

One night in 2021, a year after the Covid-19 pandemic hit Kenya, an IT specialist in Nairobi faced a harrowing ordeal in his own home. Despite having recently purchased the house with his banker wife, who earned a higher income, their marriage was on rocky grounds. Frequent quarrels erupted over the property ownership, which was solely under her name. She wanted him out.

One fateful night, as he slept in their matrimonial bedroom, the wife took matters into her own hands. She invited her two brothers, who pounced on the unsuspecting man, delivering a thorough beating.

Battered and traumatised, the husband reported the assault to a nearby police station, only to be met with a shocking response. Instead of taking his complaint seriously, the officers questioned how an adult man could be beaten by his in-laws under his wife's watch.

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Ultimately, the couple divorced, but the husband's emotional scars from the abuse and the police's dismissive attitude lingered. Seeking solace, he turned to a counselling psychologist in Nairobi to process the traumatic experience and find a path towards healing.

“He came to me six months after the divorce. He was really damaged. He would not imagine that the police would make fun of a man with a swollen face. Those (the laughing or mocking the victim) are the things that make men fear reporting domestic violence,” notes the counselling psychologist, who shared the man’s experience. (We keep him anonymous to avoid exposing his clients.)

The fear has kept many men silent despite being subjects of frequent intimate partner violence at home, where they should find peace.

For two years, Joseph Ouna has been a village elder at Mashimoni, an area in Mathare Slums, Nairobi. No man abused by his girlfriend, wife or ex-wife has ever sought his help, yet his presence is to bring peace and harmony in the households and community.

Across the country, domestic violence is causing unbearable physical, psychological, economical and emotional distress to men, but they can’t open up.

“Men can’t say they have been abused by their wives. It’s such a shame. You’ll find a man with a swollen face. When you ask him what happened, he will tell you, he fell from a motorbike,” asserts Joseph.

“Since July last year, I have looked for men who reported domestic abuse at a police station or reached out to the local administration, but found none.”

“From gender-based violence (GBV) responders to community health workers, chiefs, Nyumba Kumi members and village elders, the search ended up with either my follow-up calls being ignored, or receiving feedback that “wako wengi wanaumia lakini kuongea ni shida (There are many who are victims but they can’t talk),” says Joseph.

In 2016, a prominent political figure in Kenya became the subject of nationwide ridicule after a local daily exposed details of an assault he allegedly endured at the hands of his wife. Despite sustaining bodily injuries, his decision to report the matter to the police unleashed a torrent of public mockery.

Official complaint

On social media, he was effectively transformed into a laughingstock. Within political circles, he was reduced to an underdog. Fellow male politicians, perpetuating deeply entrenched societal biases, went so far as to question his suitability for leadership, solely because he had allegedly been abused by his wife and had the audacity to file an official complaint.

Since 1985, Kenya has been in the anti-GBV mode, campaigning aggressively against the crime. But has the nearly four decades of the battle brought any significant change?

Last year, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, an analysis that established that close to 50 per cent of Kenyan women see no problem with a man beating his wife. Of the women, 43 per cent of them and 35 per cent of men believed a man is justified to beat his wife.

Respondents were asked whether they agreed that a man is justified hitting or beating up his wife in eight circumstances, including when she burns food, argues with him, refuses to cook, goes out without telling him, returns home late, neglects the children, is unfaithful and refuses to have sex with him.

The sample of respondents was drawn from a pool of men and women aged between 15 and 49. Respondents in rural areas were more likely to condone wife beating than those in the urban areas.

Among the rural population, 51 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men agreed that wife beating is justified, compared to 30 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men in urban areas.

GBV responders say the government and its anti-GBV partners, over the years, only managed to scratch the surface; the bedrock remains intact.

The World Health Organisation describes domestic violence or intimate partner violence as behaviour by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviours.

Fida-Kenya Executive Director Anne Ireri during the interview at her office in Nairobi on January 24, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

“What we address mostly is the symptomatic effects of domestic violence. For us to aggressively address its prevalence, we must address the root causes. And the root causes from how we are socialised as women and girls, prevailing stereotypes, realities of the economy,” says Anne Ireri, Executive Director at Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (Fida-Kenya).

As a result, many men continue to suffer in silence to avoid shame, while economically under-privileged women are battered to death or tormented to near fatal extremes as they hold on to abusive marriages because the husband has the means to provide.

Yet, men need to be helped to do away with toxic masculinity.

Masculinity Institute Kenya Executive Director Kennedy Odhiambo Otina, during the interview at his office in Nairobi on January 24, 2024.

“Men have often been overlooked in discussions surrounding their roles and how to navigate modern life in the context of human rights and gender equality movements,” states Kennedy Odhiambo Otina, Executive Director of Masculinity Institute, a national organisation started in 2012 to promote the welfare of boys and men in the nation.

I spoke with three men in Mathare about men's domestic violence risks: Isaiah Khatete, a resident; Helmut Omondi, a youth leader; and Joseph, a village elder.

Isaiah Khatete

Isaiah Khatete, a resident of Mathare in Nairobi during an interview on February 2, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

“I’m married. I would be depressed if I had no job, yet I’m expected to meet my family’s basic needs including rent and food. I have a responsibility over my wife and the future of my child, yet I can’t provide for them. Obviously, I’ll be frustrated and that triggers violence. Here (in Mathare) most men in the 16-30 age bracket are married.

The government should prioritise creating employment opportunities for this category of men. In most cases, men here get married unprepared — by virtue of impregnating a girl and since they want to take responsibility for the pregnancy, they marry without understanding the responsibilities that come with it.

I have been married for seven years.  I always encourage newly married couples to seek help if they have anxiety and anger management problems. Personally, I know I’m short tempered. When we argue, I walk away, otherwise, I might hit her.”

Helmut Omondi

Helmut Omondi, chairperson of Mathare-based Future Hope Response Team community-based organisation, during an interview on February 2, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

“Early marriages contribute to domestic violence. Young people marry without knowledge of how to relate with and take care of each other.

One may be married at 17 when he doesn't even know how to take care of himself. Maybe he dropped out of school and is abusing drugs. So here, he has a wife and the only thing he knows is that the Ksh300 ($2.31) he gets is for a tot of liquor or bhang, forgetting that there is someone at home who needs food. That will definitely lead to conflict.

At the same time, you will marry a girl who knows her man has the sole responsibility of taking care of her. But with this economy, a woman may go out and make Ksh300 ($2.31) from casual work while a man will return without finding work. But since she knows it’s her money, she won’t spend a cent on the family. This lack of support from the wives leaves men feeling stressed and fighting battles on their own.

A man will go through challenges but won’t open up to anyone that he doesn’t have money because society expects him to provide. You’re a man! If you share your challenges with other men or your wife, it’s like confessing that you are a failure. As a man, you must safeguard your masculinity. Otherwise, other men will laugh at you. A man will fall into depression because he has no one to open up to.”

Joseph, village elder

Joseph Ouna, a village elder in Mathare-Mashimoni in Nairobi during an interview on February 2, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

“Marriage is no longer bound by love or values that guided the marriages of our grandparents and great grandparents. People no longer marry out of love but because they want someone to take care of their needs. A wife will refuse to be intimate with her husband because he has not brought food home.  She will protest saying, ‘How can you want me, yet you haven’t provided for me? How can I hustle to buy soap to clean myself, then you come here to befoul me?'”

Horrible marriage

One day in November, 2010, at the age of 24, Judy John* caught the eye of a man in Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi’s Eastlands.

At the time, she lived with a friend. She had lost her cashier job at a wholesale store in the neighbourhood, while giving birth to her son, who had then turned six months.

“The store owner dismissed me the moment I went to give birth. I didn’t have a contract with him and there was no maternity leave,” she says.

Her son’s father also rejected her, yet she got into the relationship looking for love that she never got from her parents. Judy, who grew up in Nyeri, in Kenya’s Central region, says her parents favoured her three brothers.

She was overworked, denied education (they refused to admit her to high school, saying it’s a waste of money) and badly beaten when she complained.

When she couldn't take it anymore, she escaped to Nyeri streets when she was only 15 years. From here, a man, a neighbour from her village home, brought her to Korogocho, where a generous woman took her in and educated her through high school. She also covered the cost of her short course in computer literacy, skills that enabled her to secure the cashier job.

Without an income and a child to provide for, Judy wouldn’t resist the man’s advances.

“It didn’t take a week before I moved in with him. I wanted someone to love me and provide for me and my child,” she shares.

Turn of events

The first three years of their marriage were like the obverse of the coin; much laughter and peace. He provided for the family. He was faithful, treated her well, and loved her son as his own. In the fourth year, she got pregnant, and the marriage tripped to the reverse of the coin.

“He slept with different women. If I asked him, he’d beat me so badly. I even miscarried due to the frequent beatings,” she says.

“Due to multiple partners, he contracted gonorrhoea and infected me. It was so bad for me and I was due in two weeks. And he said I was the one who infected him. He would beat me for that every day. I even went to Kenyatta National Hospital (largest referral hospital in Kenya), where I underwent Caesarean section because the doctors said the baby was in danger.”

Domestic violence has a worst face when women are subjected to marital rape and inhuman sexual acts within the marriage, which neither the Sexual Offences Act enacted in 2006 nor the Protection against Domestic Violence Act of 2015 criminalise.

“One time, he brought a woman home and they had sex in front of me and my children and told me, ‘This is how I want you to treat me. I hate you because you don’t do that to me,’” Juday says before letting out a deep sigh through her lips.

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

“Then he undressed me and forced me to do it before my children. Thereafter, he chased me around the compound. Imagine running around naked and your children can see you. My son ran to the house and brought me a leso (African wrap fabric, often worn by women around the waist).”

What follows next is a skin piercing, bitter and intense cry. Visualising all the events at one pace and looking at the same woman who has endured the unimaginably impossible is unsettling.

Abusive intimate partners are also a danger to children. They cause them indescribable mental and emotional disorders.

With constant beatings by her abusive husband, Judy’s eldest son turned into a disoriented child.

“He would step on my son’s neck and force him to open his mouth and spit phlegm into his mouth, and force him to swallow,” Judy agonises.

“He could beat my child like a snake. This affected him so much. He got confused. You’d send him to the shop to buy airtime but he returns with a matchbox. To date, he suffers from panic attacks.”

Despite the inhuman treatment, three things tied her to her abusive husband: He provided food and shelter, she loved him and she wanted her marriage to work. So, she consistently prayed for him, hopeful that he would change, someday.

Seven years passed and he didn’t change.

Judy says, several times, she reported him to the local chief, but his reaction was “those are domestic issues, solve them at home.” Left with no option, she persevered, as long as he provided.

But there is a limit to endurance. Sadly, for domestic violence victims whose self-esteem has been brutalised over the years, their hope for a better future crushed and chances to rise again extinguished for lack of family support, the choice for relief is often death.

In 2020, Judy was miraculously rescued from her attempt to poison herself and her children. A miracle that helped her leave a horrible marriage.

“Just before we took the poison, the woman who had hosted and educated me, called and said she wanted to see me urgently. I had mixed a herbicide for tomato with water. I hid it under the bed and told the children not to touch it,” she says.

To her surprise, the woman surrendered her house to her as she relocated to another place. She helped Judy move with her children, and gave her money to start a fast food business. Until now, Judy runs the business.

“My eldest son is now 14 years, and in Form Two. The income from this business has enabled me to pay his school fees,” she delights in her achievement.

She says she feels human again.

“I can breathe again. I wasn’t breathing then. I’m at peace and don’t want to hear stories about men again. I don’t want to be married ever again,” she vows.

Psychology of an abuser

To understand the psychology of an abusive partner, I speak to counselling psychologist Joash Nyagaya.

He says: “A perpetrator of domestic violence, be it man or woman, wants to ensure they are superior at all times.  They want to have the final say on everything and control resources. They will want to put the victim at the periphery. Factors such as poverty, unemployment, upbringing, drug and substance abuse, and social media have contributed to radicalising this superiority attitude.

Gender roles instilled at childhood play a critical role in children’s upbringing. Boys are cultured to be men and girls to be women. This influences who they become in their later life. In many cultures, men are expected to be the overall decision makers, while women are trained to be submissive. When they grow up, they behave in this manner.

Perpetrators under the influence of drugs and substance are not in their normal self; they will always be in their own world that they want to inflict pain on their victims. In a home where a woman is excelling, a man feels threatened and aims at excelling more so that he maintains the superiority.

We also have what we call social learning in psychology, whereby you learn through observation. When boys are growing up, they are keen on what their dads do like solving problems or beating their mother. Studies show that boys brought up in violent or abusive environments repeat the same later in life.

Let’s start with sensitising our families, once the message is home, then we will have healthy communities and thus healthy societies.”

Progress made so far

In the past decade, Kenya has progressively passed laws that promote equality in marriage, a step towards eliminating conflicts that result in domestic violence.

In 2013, the Matrimonial Property Act was enacted. It bestows a married woman and man equal rights to acquire, administer, hold, control, use and dispose of property, whether movable or immovable. In case of divorce, the matrimonial property is to be divided according to the contribution of each spouse towards their acquisition.

A year later came the Marriage Act (2014), which solemnised marriage as a unit of equality. Parties to marriage have equal rights and obligations at the time of the marriage, during the marriage, and at the dissolution of the marriage.

In 2015, Kenya made a significant leap, joining the league of global countries with specific laws on domestic violence. As of April 11, 2024, a total of 164 countries had anti-domestic violence laws, according to data by World Bank.

In Europe, Spain is often quoted for taking the lead in fighting domestic violence. It became the first country on the continent to pass laws specifically tackling gender violence.

On December 28, 2004, the Spanish government passed the Organic Act on Integrated Protection Measures against Gender Violence.  An important highlight in this law is the use of education system to instil values of respect for humanity.

The law makes it clear that children from the pre-school level are introduced to conflict-solving skills, which are further advanced at primary level.

This is missing in Kenya’s Protection against Domestic Violence Act (2015), which gives power to court to direct parties involved in the domestic violence to go for counselling or mediation.

Additionally, there are at least 17 courts designated for prosecution of gender-based offences in Spain, compared to Kenya’s five, besides the six gender-based violence registries.

From the 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey data, married women in the country are more likely to experience physical violence from their current husbands or intimate partners, at 54 per cent, two times the global average of 27 per cent.

Similarly, 34 per cent of the ever-partnered women are likely to suffer the same fate from a former husband or intimate partner. At the same time, 70.9 per cent of ever-partnered women have suffered sexual violence from a current husband or intimate partner, and 19.2 per cent from a former husband or intimate partner. Anti-GBV actors say in the journey towards eliminating domestic violence, Kenya makes 10 steps forwards and 11 backwards.


“At the Generation Equality Forum, former President Uhuru Kenyatta made commitments to end GBV by 2026, which included budgetary commitments. It’s 2024 and nothing has changed,” asserts Chryspin Afifu, a gender and women’s economic empowerment specialist.

On June 30, 2021, during the forum held in France, then President Kenyatta committed to full implementation of GBV laws and policies by adopting a GBV indicator in the government performance contracting framework and investment of $23 million for GBV prevention and response by 2022. The allocation would be increased to up to $50 million by 2026 through a co-financing model. No allocation has been made to this effect.

Elusive Policare

A Policare Centre at the Nairobi Area Traffic Police headquarters. Image by Francis Nderitu/Nation Media Group.

In 2021, the National Police Service launched Policare policy. The name referred to “Police cares.” Under Policare, the gender desks would be integrated into the system to offer a complete set of services.

Victims would get all services under one building. They would find a police officer to take the report and investigate, a medical professional to treat them and a lawyer to represent them in court. Nevertheless, the much publicised Nairobi and Nanyuki Policare centres are yet to offer the expected services.

Almost two decades earlier, the government had rolled out gender desks to boost the fight against GBV. Launched in 2004, the desks were purposed to eliminate fear and shame that comes with the abuse. And in the long term encourage the society to report such cases either as victims or as witnesses of the abuse. But going by the experience of the abused man who sought the counsellor’s help, the stigmatising and shaming of victims is still a horror that the abused face at police stations.

Notably, not all police stations have gender desks.  There are no official figures of gender desks in Kenya. However, a UN Women article dated April 22, 2023 indicated that about 50 per cent of the police stations in Kenya have them.

Role of gender organisations

Women rights organisations continue to bridge the gap by supporting sensitisation drives at the grassroots, running all of the 52 shelters present in 18 of the 47 counties, and hotlines.

However, they heavily rely on donor funding, an aid that has been declining over the years due to global economic downturn and shift in priorities.

“Funding has been shrinking since the onset of Covid-19. Donors are shifting to emerging issues such as climate change, technology facilitated GBV as well as humanitarian issues,” observes Fridah Wawira Nyaga, acting Executive Director, Coalition on Violence against Women (Covaw)

How Covaw is working towards ending domestic violence in Kenya.

“Again, donors want to finance the projects but they don't want to cover the core costs of running them like covering salaries for the staff, and rent for the office where they operate from.”

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show official development assistance to support women’s rights organisations and movements as well as government institutions dropped to $631 million on average per year in 2021-2022, from $891 million in 2019-2020.

Although men’s rights organisations like Dan Shieshie Foundation and Masculinity Institute have emerged, securing funding to run intervention programmes for men and boys is nearly impossible.

“‘The general assumption in programming is that men are okay. That’s why no money is budgeted to address their issues. It’s assumed that somehow, somewhere they’ll navigate their way out, but that is proving to be not true,” notes Kennedy Odhiambo Otina, the Executive Director of Masculinity Institute.

Hotline for men

In June 2021, the Dan Shieshie Foundation launched a hotline, 1198, specifically for men, to call and get help for trouble they are facing, including domestic violence.

But by January 2024, the financial support had run out and the emergency line went out of service.

“Donors need to open up the space for men and boys. The fact is, they also need help,” says Dan Shieshie, the founder of the men’s rights organisation.

The government has already realised the unequal manner in which it’s running gender equality campaigns, prompting it to start a male engagement programme.

Jackline Makokha, director of gender mainstreaming directorate at the State Department of Gender and Affirmative Action, speaks to the Nation at her office on January 29, 2024. Image by Dennis Onsongo/Nation Media Group.

“We have a structure called the National Gender Sector Working Group, which is within the intergovernmental framework for the gender sector. It has been in existence since 2019,” explains Jackline Makokha, director of gender mainstreaming directorate at the State Department of Gender and Affirmative Action.

“Within the gender sector we used to have four thematic areas including women in leadership, socio-economic empowerment and inclusion, GBV and women, peace and security. But in August 2023, we launched the fifth thematic area, which is the male engagement and inclusion.”

However, domestic violence has many faces.

“We must have interventions that collectively address domestic violence,” reiterates Anne Ireri, the executive director of Fida-Kenya.

“Focus on the long term but put in place immediate and mid-term remedies. Often what we are grappling with, on a daily basis, is the immediate; the wife or husband has been battered so the immediate response is needed. But these are short-term responses. What led to these situations rising? That’s what we need to focus on and it’s directly related to the environment or society we live in. Short of that, we will be responding to the immediate and that is not sustainable.”

For the husbands and wives who battle violence at the heart of their homes, all they need is help.

“I didn’t even know the work my husband did. What if he used drugs and all he needed is help? Or maybe he saw his father abuse his mother and assumed it is normal. I don’t believe a normal human being can wilfully cause another human being so much pain,” reckons Judy.

*Judy John 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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