Your hard work in secondary school paid off and you made it to university. You are elated, sure that this is the beginning of a future with endless possibilities.
Since home is too far from school, it only makes sense to board – this will be the first time you will be living on your own, and you look forward to it. A few months into your first semester, you meet a boy, a good looking young man who tells you that you are the most beautiful girl he has ever seen.
He is in his third year, and takes it upon himself to show you around the campus, introduces you to his cool friends and takes you to your first ‘serious’ hangout joint. He lavishes you with attention, and cannot seem to have enough of your company. Every waking moment is spent with him – the only time you are apart is when you are in class, and even then, you keep texting each other. You are in love, and isn’t love wonderful!
On the day it all begins, you are at the campus cafeteria having tea with one of your classmates, Jymo, the class clown. You are laughing loudly at a joke he just made when you spot your boyfriend walking towards you. He has an ugly look on his face.
“Who is this?!” he barks angrily.
Taken aback, you pause wordlessly.
“I asked, who is this?!” he loudly asks again. By this time, everyone in the cafeteria is staring at you. He takes you by the arm and hauls you up, then marches you outside, accusing you of flirting with “other” men.
You are confused and scared, and you start crying. He softens up, apologises profusely and tells you that he was just jealous. Well, that makes sense, and aren’t you a lucky girl to be in a relationship with a man that loves you this much, you console yourself. Fast forward to a couple of months later, you are no longer a stranger to his violent outbursts, and he has beaten you up a couple of times.
You know you should leave him, and your friends keep asking what you are still doing with him.
How many young women at our universities can relate to this hypothetical story? The fact is that quite a number of students in our institutions of higher learning are in abusive relationships.
Over the past few weeks, there have been sporadic cases reported by the media of university students killing each other following love gone sour.
Stella Chienjo, a student counsellor, at Daystar University, is of the opinion that our permissive culture when it comes to relationship-related violence is to blame for the rise of these worrying cases.
“Such cases will continue to happen, thanks to our cultural values, which portray abuse in relationships as a normal and acceptable part of daily life. Among college students, the issue is especially difficult to deal with if the one being abused is in the same school as the abuser, and perhaps attend the same classes,” the PhD student of clinical psychology notes.
Stella adds that those who come from sheltered homes where parents are overly restrictive when it comes to opposite-sex relationships are more likely to be susceptible to abuse once they start dating. This is because they are generally inexperienced when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex and are enamoured by the concept of first love.
When abuse occurs, such girls are likely to brush it off as a minor inconvenience that comes with being in a relationship because they are young, vulnerable and naïve. Such girls are so infatuated by the thrill of a first-time relationship, that they are willing to cast a blind eye on their partner’s violent behaviour.
Take Jennifer Nduku, (not her real name) for example, a 21-year-old second year student at Kenyatta University.
“Samuel* and I met on my first week at university when he approached me after an orientation session. My parents did not allow me to have close friendships with boys, so Samuel was my first love,” she says.
He started portraying extreme possessiveness just days into the relationship. “He wanted me to spend all my time with him, and he’d even wait for me outside the lecture halls. He would also get furious when he spotted me talking to my male classmates.”
“At first, I thought it was really cute, but I started getting concerned when he confronted and roughed up a classmate, accusing him of having an affair with me,” Jennifer adds.
He would also go through her text messages and interrogate her whenever a man as much as commented on her Facebook timeline. The first time he slapped her was two months into the relationship, after he discovered that Jennifer had attended a party the previous night without his approval.
“He slapped me and called me a prostitute in the presence of my friends – they asked me to report him to the school administration, but I refused. I felt like he had done the right thing and only ‘disciplined’ me because he feared for my safety. I blamed myself for not having sought permission from him before attending the party,” she continues.
Her acquiescence to the assault turned out to be the first step down an abusive relationship.
“I tried to leave him several times, but then I would convince myself that he wasn’t really a bad person. To say the truth, he was handsome and dressed well, and many of my friends envied our relationship, which is partly why I stayed on.”
She finally came to her senses when he one day came at her with a knife, accusing her of cheating on him after she got a present on Valentine’s Day from a friend.
“Had my friends not been present that day, I would probably be dead.”
Confusing extreme jealousy with love, points out Stella, is another mistake many university students make.
She says, “Possessiveness is not a sign of love. In fact, it is a warning to get out of the relationship before the situation worsens, because it will.”
Doreen Mwenda, Kenyatta University’s Gender Secretary, says that her office handles cases of physical and sexual violence on a regular basis.
“Over a week ago, one of the students came to report her boyfriend, who had broken her arm during a fight – hardly a fortnight goes by before such a case is referred to this office.”
Emily Waithera tells a slightly different story from Jennifer’s. For two years now, she has been having an affair with a wealthy middle-aged man who happens to be married. The man often beats her up.
“It is something I am embarrassed about, and at first, I would tell my friends that I had had an accident.”
This man gives her money, and as a result, her lifestyle is way beyond the means of her peers. She explains that she finds it difficult to leave the relationship not only because of the financial assistance she gets, but also because she fears for her life.
“I once tried to end the relationship, but he threatened to find me wherever I ran to.”
Commenting on Emily’s predicament, Stella agrees that college-going women in relationships with much older men are more prone to abuse, noting that the men use the women’s lack of financial stability to control them.
Even though the women are the ones who often find themselves at the receiving end of violent relationships, tables do turn once in a while.
“A few men have reported abuse by their girlfriends – I have a feeling though that there are many more in such relationships, but shy away from talking about it to save face,” Doreen says.
Joyce Auma, a Kenyatta University student who lives in an apartment off-campus, speaks of a college-mate who often beats up her boyfriend.
“The two have lived together for close to a year now. Some nights, they quarrel, after which the woman throws her boyfriend out together with his clothes.”
Abusers also use blackmail to perpetrate violence against their partners. For instance, if your boyfriend is in possession of your nude photos or videos, he may threaten to release them on social media should you speak out against the abuser or leave them.
Esther Kisaghu, the founder and director of The Rose Foundation, an organisation that creates awareness against domestic violence and also offers training in schools, and other institutions about the same, explains that students caught in an abusive relationship might find it difficult to leave because by then, the tormentor has torn apart their self-esteem.
“An abusive boyfriend will constantly belittle and criticise you in the presence of your friends and in private as well. He will call you worthless and ugly, and convince you that he’s the only person in the world who could love you.”
Esther herself dropped out of university in pursuit of a dead-end relationship with a boyfriend who later started to physically and emotionally abuse her.
Another disturbing indicator of an abusive relationship is the oppressive partner’s insistence on you adhering to rigid roles. The abused girls usually forsake their leisure and even sacrifice their lecture time to play wife to their boyfriends, whom they are expected to serve and obey submissively.
As Doreen has observed in her university, a boy could beat up his girlfriend one day only for him to show up at her doorstep the next day with a basketful of laundry.
“All abusive behaviours usually come from the desire to acquire power over another,” Esther points out and adds,
“Oppressors thrive in the ability of being able to control those they are in a relationship with, that they forget they are independent human beings and start feeling like possessions or belongings.”
Some people, Stella observes, are able to control you by simply instilling fear. Someone who threatens to kill you one minute and then says that he loves you the other is psychologically assaulting you.
One of the most troubling aspects is the fact that some students view abuse as a normal part of the relationship, says Agatha Mwaura, a former peer counsellor in one of the public universities.
“Some of the students who came to us for counselling often had this misguided belief that when their boyfriend hit them, it showed that he loved and cared for them.”
Experts agree that the rising cases of violence in our institutions of higher learning are a reflection of failed family structures in our society.
Esther is also of the opinion that parents have failed to teach their sons the importance of treating women with respect. She adds that many young adults who have been brought up in homes where their parents abuse each other physically or in other ways tend to carry on the behaviour into their relationships later in life.
“It is sad when such violence sets in at a very young age, as this is a precursor to domestic violence when one gets married.”
If you ever find yourself at the centre of violence in your relationship, silence will only prove to be your partner’s greatest weapon.
While speaking out is the recommended course of action, many victims usually opt to remain silent because there’s a high risk that they will instead be judged and condemned. Another student who did not wish to be named said that when she reported her boyfriend to her institution’s security office, the officer in charge dismissed her, arguing that theirs was a normal dispute among students.
There is also the fact that some administrators in some of these institutions are more concerned about protecting the school’s image than finding justice for the victims. A majority of students would not even know where and how to report abuse.
“Students should know that their institutions are mandated under the law to protect them against violence of any kind. At Kenyatta University, the office of the Gender Secretary receives such complaints and forwards them to the disciplinary committee. We also hold week-long annual gender awareness weeks to sensitise students on such matters,” says Doreen Mwenda.
The university also has peer counsellors to counsel students who are afraid of opening up to older resident counsellors.
At Daystar University, there are counselling centres that offer subsidised counselling services to students.
“When your life is in danger, walk away and inform someone in authority – you are too young to die for love,” advises Esther.
Markers of a healthy relationship
1 Respect: Lundy Bancroft, one of the world’s foremost experts on domestic abuse, says, “You cannot abuse what you respect and you cannot respect what you abuse.” Maintaining a healthy relationship means respecting your partner’s time, heart and body.
2 Authenticity: In an authentic relationship, both parties will always admit to their faults and are not always focused on winning over each other. Each individual then does their best to bring out the best in their partners.
3 Protection: The ideal lover will do their best to shield you from any form of physical or psychological abuse.
4 Communication: Couples need to be able to point out problems in the relationship freely. To move forward and grow, you two need to be able to truly talk about your feelings, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it feels.
How do you know you’re in an abusive relationship?
1 Your partner is jealous and possessive often. For instance, he often goes through your texts messages and phone records, as well as social media walls.
- Your partner controls your time. In this case, he or she may forbid you from relating with the opposite sex and demand that you always report your whereabouts.
- You get unnecessarily angry when parents and friends ask for details about your relationship.
- Your opinion in the relationship (e.g suggesting a location for a date) is always ignored, and your partner gets angry when you point out problems in your relationship.
- Your partner blames their hurtful behaviour on you and constantly takes you on guilt trips.
- Your partner constantly puts you down, makes fun of you in public, insults you, or humiliates you in public or private.
- Your partner feels entitled to your body and expresses his entitlement by harshly criticising your looks. He may accuse you of being “fat”, for example.
- You are always pushed into giving in to his sexual demands even when you do not want to.
- You play wife in the relationship. He expects you to serve, obey and carry out most of his domestic chores.