The COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt affected and caused a shift change in our lives. Mental health is one topic that has been emphasized given the circumstances that have come with the pandemic.
Though there are no accurate data or statistics, helplines noted a surge during the lockdown phase. According to Gender-based violence researchers and commentators, domestic violence increases when families spend time together — even on happy occasions.
Mental health has been a global discussion for the last couple of months with most health bodies encouraging people to take it seriously especially during these uncertain times.
Some statistics have shown that one in every three individuals worldwide will experience domestic violence in some form.
It is understood as a behaviour focused on the oppression of another individual, causing significant hurt and trauma through physical, sexual, and mental harm.
In Kenya, there are a handful of safe shelters most of them being run by individuals and supported by donors. Usikimye which means don't be silent in Swahili is one of its kind. The organization runs three safe houses/shelters for survivors. In 2020, the safe house rescued 4385 women across the three houses.
Usikimye have rescued 4385 women and girls, 361 children, and 14 infants in 2020. They have also rescued 71 young men (teenagers) and 9 men. One of the highest numbers they have registered as compared to recent years.
Research done by the government last year saw a spike in household and community violence showing about 45 per cent of people aged between 15 and 49 experienced physical violence.
Psychologist and counsellor Esther Mbau shares that violence against women can cause long-term physical and mental health problems.
"Violence and abuse affect not just the women involved but also their children, families, and communities. These effects include harm to an individual's health, possibly long-term harm to children, and harm to communities such as lost work and homelessness.
“If you have experienced abuse, you may feel many emotions — fear, confusion, anger, or even being numb and not feeling much of anything. You may feel guilt or shame over being assaulted. These feelings begin even long before the actual abuse does take place but we try to ignore them or excuse them.
"As a woman, I tell my fellow women to never ignore their emotions and to always acknowledge when they are feeling unsafe around someone or in a relationship,” she said.
According to Mbau, long-term mental health effects of violence against women can include Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.
She adds that other effects could be shutting people out, not wanting to do things you once enjoyed, not being able to trust others, and having low esteem.
So what happens when a survivor seeks solace in a safe house? Women rights activist and Director of Usikimye Njeri Migwi shares that once they rescue a survivor, there are processes they take them through with mental health being paramount.
“We listen to their narrative afresh, register them and make them comfortable at the safe house. In case some of the survivors need medical assessment and treatment we attend to that, then they can receive psychological help and counselling,” Migwi says.
Esther Mbau goes ahead to give a breakdown of the stages of recovery.
Stage One: Safety, Stabilization, and Overcoming Dysregulation. We help you feel safe and get a sense of control over your emotions.
Stage Two: Remembrance, Mourning, and Coming to Terms with Traumatic Memories. We revisit the source of pain so we can begin to deal with it and the issues brought about by it.
Stage Three: Reconnection and Integration. This begins with forgiving yourself and the abuser even as we reconnect to the person who was there and is still there.
Stage Four: Posttraumatic Growth (PTG): This is finding meaning from the pain and using this pain to make you better, not bitter.
Achieving Recovery: This is a lifetime process and not a one-off thing as we will always live with the memories and the pain, however, we can choose to not remain stuck there but to find new meaning and keep working towards our goals and dreams.
Psychologist Esther Mbau says the country does not have enough safe houses. “ I would make a plea to not only the government but to the community to mobilize funds and have more safe houses. My bigger plea though would be that as a society we should strive to empower both the girl child and the boy child so that the rising numbers of abuse reduce. Let's all strive to ensure mental health for all,” she concluded.