Preventing Partner Violence through Media Narratives in Kenya

An artist’s impression of domestic violence in The Standard Newspaper on March 5, 2018

Mainstream newspaper reports in Kenya often cover intimate partner violence. The evidence shows that many of these incidents of violence involve beatings and murder followed by other forms of violence such as sexual abuse. In all these cases, women are disproportionately represented as victims of violence at the hands of their male partners.

In January 2018, for example, The Standard Newspaper featured the story of a woman from Migori County who was rushed to hospital with serious injuries after her husband chopped off her hand because she overstayed at a funeral. The 50-year-old and mother of nine recounted how her husband cut her on the face and threw a spear at her as she tried to run away.

The woman was said to have gone for a funeral on a Monday at the home of one of her in-laws, thinking that the burial would take place on that day but it delayed until Wednesday of the same week.

According to her account, when she came back home on Thursday evening her husband was not in. She went ahead and prepared for the evening but when he came, he just attacked her. He beat and cut her repeatedly with a machete, even threatening to kill her. This case, like many others have been covered by the mainstream newspapers in Kenya.

Kenya has one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa. Article 45 of the Constitution (2010) recognizes and protects the family institution, recognizing it as the natural and fundamental unit of society and the necessary basis of social order. Other laws that have been enacted in Kenya to protect people from gender-based violence include Protection against Domestic Violence Act (2015), which is meant to provide for the protection and relief of victims of intimate partner violence; to provide for the protection of a spouse and any children or other dependent persons.

Past international critiques have faulted mainstream media for normalizing partner violence through stereotypical and sensationalist reporting. In the example quoted above, it is apparent that the woman is being punished for ‘delaying’ at a funeral. It appears to be a classic case of male brute force being used to sort out partner differences. In the article, there is no attempt by the reporter to echo social responsibility or even alternative dispute resolution mechanisms for such cases.

In a study by this author analyzing mainstream newspaper articles drawn from The Standard and Daily Nation from 2015–2019, victim blaming was evident in over half(60.4%) of the articles. This mainly occured indirectly by showing women victims as sharing the blame for the violence. The most common phrases depicting shared blame were: ‘the couple have had long standing feuds’, ‘the couple had been having frequent disagreements’, ‘they have been quarreling from time to time’, ‘the couple has been having frequent fights’, or that the violence occurred ‘when they argued.’ Such reporting subtly creates and sustains a public discourse that the prevention of men’s violence is women’s responsibility and implicitly implies that women should modify their behavior by not participating in arguments to avoid violence. This may only normalize the use of violence by men and hence perpetuate it in the society.

The mainstream media’s commitments to gender equality ideals should be seen to discourage the normalization of partner violence through coverage that promotes social responsibility rather than apportioning total or partial blame on women for occurrence of the violence. Such narratives of social responsibility will promote the use of non-violent means to solve disputes hence the reduction of partner violence in the society.

Strategic & gender communication lecturer at Rongo University, Kenya; Policy Communication Fellow at PRB/AFIDEP (2020-2021)