Earlier in October the world was raising awareness on mental health, a fundamental part of human health. World Mental Health day was marked on October 10th.
As a child, I wondered what was bizarre with a particular woman I used to see at the local market. She was always in dirty tattered clothes, worn inside out, hair brown and shaggy. We were warned not to stand near her as she would infest us with lice. She collected food from dumpsites and would get a thorough beating if she took anything from a trader when hungry. Children enjoyed chasing her, and naughty boys would follow her to a bush she used to release herself and laugh and throw things at her. And then I saw her no more. Word had it she had died. Nobody bothered to find out how or when. Then later a vendor told me why she had been that way. She was a ‘mad’ woman, he told me, the reason everyone hated and avoided her.
Last year I worked as a social work intern at a Gender Violence Centre of a referral hospital in Nairobi. I regularly accompanied the psychiatrist to the wards to check on patients admitted for GBV. That is when I met Wanja (not her real name), a plump, bubbly twenty-something girl who had a mental illness. She lived with her grandmother who subsequently died, leaving her under the care of relatives who physically abused her until she ran away to the streets. There she was severely and continuously sexually abused, and by the time the hospital received her, she was in critical condition requiring multiple surgeries. After treatment she could not be discharged like other patients, as nobody came forward to claim her. Several years later, she still lay at the hospital ward, with failed attempts to contact any known relatives. Fortunately, a compassionate Rescue Centre finally accepted her this year.
Recently, a female member of a County assembly in Kenya representing persons with disability reported[i] an increase in repeated sexual abuse of the mentally disabled. She noted that the victims were an easy target as they cannot fight back the perpetrators, who take advantage of their disability.
We ought to raise alarm over rampant abuse of mentally ill women as they cannot stand for themselves. Picture this scenario. We know that any person of unsound mound is incapable of consent to any sexual act. She neither understands the nature or effect of the act, therefore she is unlikely to retaliate or scream when attacked by an abuser. She may not possess the requisite knowledge to report the incident. If reported, she may not recall the details. Worse still, she might not identify the perpetrator. As a person of unsound mind, she will be declared an incompetent witness in court and thus her evidence discredited. The perpetrator will sadly remain free or if arrested, will not be prosecuted. There is no justice for the mentally ill victim who continues to be exposed to more abuse by the same perpetrator and others.
In medical terms, mental illness is broader than permanent insanity. It includes temporary emotional instability of the mind such as depression and mental disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia.
A 2014 research by UCL and Kings’s College London gave astounding revelations;[ii]
- 40% of women surveyed with severe mental illness had suffered rape or attempted rape in adulthood
- 53% had attempted suicide as a result
- 69% of women in the group also reported adulthood domestic violence from family members, compared with 35% of the general population.
The study proves there is a strong correlation between mental illness and sexual and domestic violence. Women with severe mental illness are up to five times more likely to suffer from sexual violence and twice as likely to suffer domestic violence.
To eradicate violence against women, we certainly have to fight against abuse of women who are mentally ill. The category of women ought to be protected as a high risk target of gender-based violence. They are vulnerable because of both their gender and mental condition. Mentally ill women require special care and protection from potential physical and sexual abuse. Let us champion for their welfare and advocate for their special rights.
[ii] H. Khalifeh, P. Moran, R. Borschmann, K. Dean, C. Hart, J. Hogg, D. Osborn, S. Johnson and L. M. Howard (2015). Domestic and sexual violence against patients with severe mental illness. Psychological Medicine, 45, pp 875-886. doi:10.1017/S0033291714001962.