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Over 47% of women in Kenya have experienced physical or sexual violence by their partner. Chaiyapong/Shutterstock

Domestic violence and social status: a Kenyan case study

The rate of domestic violence in sub-Saharan Africa is among the highest in the world. Over 47% of women in Kenya have experienced physical or sexual violence. This is higher than pooled estimates from 81 countries which show that nearly 30% of women experience physical or sexual intimate partner violence during their lifetimes.

Experiencing violence leads to lasting physical, mental and emotional trauma for women, and children who witness it.

My colleagues and I wanted to better understand how violence against women could be prevented. An essential piece of the puzzle is identifying which men are more likely to perpetrate violence, and what factors drive them.

For our study, we wanted to know if perceived social status – how high up the “social ladder” men perceived themselves to be – affected domestic violence patterns. We hypothesised that men who perceived their social status as lower were more likely to perpetrate domestic violence, partly due to lower self-esteem.

We found that they were. This is consistent with research in other parts of the world. Our research shows that the opinion men have about where they stand in society has mental, physical, and social implications.

This is because violence is often perpetrated in an effort to “save face” – that is, to recover some sense of lost or threatened respect from other people and low self-esteem as a result. Studies show that men with lower self-esteem are more likely to perceive actions by their partner as threatening – even if their partner intends no harm or disrespect – and so their reactions are more likely to be violent or retaliatory.

This is by no means to suggest that only men with lower social status are violent towards women. Violence can be found at all levels of society. But, what it does show is that certain factors can erode a man’s sense of personal value – like income insecurity or a lack of social support during childhood – leading him towards violent reactions.

The study

We conducted interviews with over 500 men (aged 18 - 34 years) in Meru County, central Kenya, of whom 263 were in a relationship.

The men were shown a 10-rung ladder and told that the top of the ladder represented the most well-off in society –- those with the most money, education and best jobs. The rungs at the bottom of the ladder represented the least well-off in society –- those with the least money, education and worst or no jobs.

We asked men to place an “X” where they thought they were located on the social ladder.

The men were then asked about how often there was conflict with their partner over the past year. Conflict behaviour included: shoving a partner, punching or kicking a partner, injuring a partner to the extent that they needed to seek medical help, and using force to make a partner have sex.

We found that the lower men ranked themselves, the more violence they reported with their intimate partner. Men who ranked themselves low were also less likely to talk through the issue to resolve conflict the conflict.

Self-esteem appears in this study, as it has in previous studies, to reveal how social status affects conflict resolution between men and their romantic partners. Men with higher self-esteem appear to have more psychological and emotional resources to deal with conflict non-violently rather than resorting to violence.

For instance, men with high self-esteem may attribute their partner’s irritation to an unrelated event, whereas men with low self-esteem are more likely to attribute their partner’s irritation to some perceived defect within themselves. They therefore may respond violently or in a way that demeans their partner. There is strong experimental support for this pattern in high-income countries. As men with lower subjective social status often have lower self-esteem, it follows that men with lower social standing may perpetrate more domestic violence due to lower self-esteem.


One approach to help deal with the impact of low self-esteem on mental health and social relationships has been the cultivation of self-compassion.

Teaching men to have compassion and acceptance for themselves may improve men’s mental health and increase their ability to empathise with intimate partners. For instance, loving kindness meditation is a popular new approach to increasing compassion within Western social science research, and has not been explored in rural Kenya or sub-Saharan Africa.

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