How does intimate-partner violence affect Kenyan women’s rights? How can the government, NGOs, and the legal and healthcare systems support abused women? This paper from the Institute of Development Studies explores links between intimate-partner violence and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) rights in Nairobi. Significant gaps exist between formal legal rights and the realities experienced by individuals. Legal reform, improved services for affected women and better coordination among service providers are required.
The study uses client records from the Women’s Rights Awareness Programme, a Nairobi-based NGO providing support, shelter, and referral services for survivors of gender-based violence. Health conditions related to abuse are a major problem in Kenya, where half of all women have experienced violence. Intimate-partner violence is physical, sexual or emotional abuse by spouses or sexual partners. It involves multiple violations of SRH rights. It causes injury and infection, takes away women’s rights to choice about sex and reproduction, and undermines access to health services.
SRH rights are central to physical and mental wellbeing and fundamental to development. In Kenya, SRH rights are articulated in national and international law, but many women affected by intimate-partner violence face repeated obstacles when claiming SRH rights from social networks, justice institutions and service providers. Intimate-partner violence has a devastating impact on women’s health and wellbeing:
- It exposes women to SRH and mental health risks, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy complications and depression. Abused women often lack knowledge about these risks, have feelings of hopelessness about their health, and cannot access adequate health services.
- Economic factors lead many women to subordinate their sexual and reproductive rights to their own and their children’s material needs. Many women are vulnerable to intimate-partner violence because of economic dependence, insecure housing, or lack of legal status if cohabiting.
- Social attitudes and the national legal framework have limited recognition of women’s rights. Women face high social costs in seeking justice and treatment for health problems associated with violence.
- Social networks and justice institutions sometimes support women exercising their rights, but sometimes obstruct them.
Service providers and policymakers must make changes to overcome barriers to women’s rights in Kenya. Such changes should involve:
- Multi-sectoral coordination: Government ministries should strengthen standards and improve coordination between services for women affected by violence. These include the Children’s Department, health care providers, police, and NGOs. Service providers should collaborate to strengthen referral systems.
- The health sector: Good quality SRH services should be accessible for abused women. The different needs of women affected by both long-term abuse and single episodes of violence should be considered.
- The legal and judicial sector: The Children’s Act should be reformed to clarify the situation of children of cohabiting couples. Marital rape should be explicitly prohibited in Kenyan national law.
- Intimate-partner violence prevention: Measures addressing vulnerability in abusive relationships and violence prevention interventions working with men are needed. Religious and community leaders should publicly address domestic violence as a social and moral issue.
- Increased funding: More resources are needed to prevent violence, help women leave violent relationships, and deal with the effects of abuse.