Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and Mental Health

By Ivy Maloy

Being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional, milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school and in their communities. In Kenya, four people take their lives everyday on average due to mental related issues. May is Mental Awareness Month, it is a time to recognize issues surrounding mental health.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) can have a profound and life-long impact on the mental health of survivors who are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Children exposed to violence and abuse are at risk of experiencing and perpetrating violence as adults. Child exposure to violence, and growing up in toxic environment are key factors in underlying SGBV. It deprives them of the environment and means to fully develop their full potential. Children often become desensitized to suffering; they may learn to see the use of violence as a legitimate means to achieve their own aims.

It is important to remember that all forms of gender-based violence are a violation of the rights of a child. Growing up in such an environment ends up affecting them when they become adults, which affects society as a whole as it ends up being a cycle. Researchers are recognizing the intergenerational cycle of violence and the linkages between traumatic exposures in childhood and later perpetuating violence later in life.

Ending SGBV is a community effort in that if we all come together and discuss on how to end it and enact steps that may help the victims move past their trauma and not enact in on other people as adults. To be able to move past it. Prevention efforts should focus on equipping volunteer community mobilizers to educate their wider communities on GBV and the lasting mental effects it has on children through awareness events and individual interactions. Volunteers learn how to identify and refer vulnerable victims and GBV survivors to known resources and supports. To promote further awareness and outreach, we should mobilize student clubs by holding rallies on GBV and equipping groups to lead awareness events in their schools and communities.  

The GBV service network, based in DR Congo is growing through response and support efforts like conducting refresher trainings with health center staff on the national protocols for treating and referring GBV cases. Another key activity is supplying health centers with much-needed rape response kits that contain STI prophylaxes, medicine and medical equipment. Program staff also work closely with law enforcement to raise communities’ understanding of the role police have in the response to GBV. They also support survivors seeking justice by helping with lawyer and court fees.

Statistics indicate that Kenya has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. One in three Kenyan females experience an episode of sexual violence before age 18. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey of 2014 showed that 45 percent of women aged 15-49 have experienced either physical or sexual violence. More than 41% of Kenyan women experience sexual and/or physical violence by intimate partners in their lifetime, while in a 12-month period, 31% of women are living with active violence in their homes. In over 90% of reported cases, men are the main perpetrators of violence; however men can also be victims of violence, with one in five Kenyan males having experienced an episode of sexual violence before age 18.
World Vision Kenya received support from the Sexual Violence Research Initiative and World Bank Group Development Marketplace for Innovations to Prevent Gender-Based Violence and to launch a project aimed at reducing intimate partner violence in communities in Kenya. The project will target men with common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, acknowledging the links between men with mental health problems, alcohol and substance use and high incidences of IPV.

When men understand the impact of violence on women and children they will be able to protect their women and children from violence as well as create awareness on the reparations of violence. Children growing up in such an environment will grow up knowing that violence is never the answer but for the children growing up in a toxic environment with violent parents will automatically pick some or all of the traits.

The correlation between the state of mental health and rise of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) shows that mental health has a crucial role in the primary prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) even though most standard practice has focused on the role of mental health post-violence, and primary prevention relying on public health models that do not explicitly include mental health. For example, research shows that:

  • Empathy
  •  self-esteem
  • Compassion
  •  emotional regulation and resilience
  •  stress management
  •  relationship building and
  • challenging problematic social norms is crucial for primary prevention of SGBV.

 A 2016 report by the National Gender and Equality Commission estimated that the cost of GBV stood at KES 46 billion, which translated to about 1.1 percent of Kenya’s GDP due to medical related expenses, litigation costs, productivity losses among others. More needs to be done to create awareness about mental health and its economic cost. Also, there is need for an immediate taskforce to collect data about mental health in Kenya to advise policy decisions. In the words of Owen Arthur, former Prime Minister of Barbados: “For he who has health has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.

Most people who grapple with mental health may have had traumatic experiences in their childhood which shapes their futures. In order to avoid the cycle of abusive homes, parents and the community at large should come together to find sustainable solutions to SGBV and its effects on mental health.

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