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Accusations of domestic violence dominate Senator Lucy Gichuhi’s new book

Trigger warning: This story contains depictions of domestic and family violence.

This week Senator Lucy Gichuhi released her self-published book, Behind the Smile: From the Slopes of Mount Kenya to Commonwealth Parliament of Australia with “the hope that it will inspire the hearts of those who have been crushed by life and have almost given up on their dreams.”

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A memoir that traces Gichuhi’s life from childhood in Kenya to her current position as an Australian senator, the book is punctuated by alleged incidents of domestic and family violence in both her family of origin and her marriage.*

“The process of writing has been painful as I have had to relive traumatic experiences I thought I had successfully buried. Facing them and putting them on paper has robbed them of their deadly power,” Gichuihi writes. “My second hope is that my vulnerability will give you the courage to face your own destructive patterns that have been embedded in your pain.”

Gichuhi’s husband, William, to whom she is still married, along with her youngest daughter, has denied her abuse allegations in an interview with The Australian newspaper. In response Gichuhi has reportedly said she is unsurprised by his denial because “that is what an abuser will do”.

There is much more to the book than Gichuhi’s accounts of alleged domestic violence, with her story touching on themes of self-awareness, conflict, community, cultural differences, leadership, resilience and much more. Yet it is her alleged experience of violence, which dominates its narrative, that paints a striking picture of how physical, emotional, verbal and financial abuse can be layered up in a domestic setting.

In the same way that the readers’s experience of Gichuhi’s book is dominated by her portrayal of domestic violence, so, she writes, has her life been.

“… there was one traumatic series of events that arose which scarred me for life. It involved the horror of domestic violence. My uncle, who is my father’s brother, regularly beat my aunt out of her senses. I still remember her screams ripping the air apart. Very sadly, my aunt did not survive this abuse. My cousins’ lives – and my own family’s lives – even without us understanding it at the time, would change forever, especially emotionally.”

Almost all the people featured in Behind the Smile’s pages are complex figures about whom Gichuhi expresses ambivalent feelings – often within the space of a single page.

Almost all the people featured in Behind the Smile’s pages are complex figures about whom Gichuhi expresses ambivalent feelings – often within the space of a single page.

Gichuhi’s father, for example, fights to provide her and her siblings with an education and fiercely defends her from those who seek to harm or exploit her. However, he is also alleged to be physically, verbally and financially abusive towards her mother.

Her mother, in turn, takes the only forms of resistance available to her – problematic as it seems to a contemporary Australian reader.

“One day, when my parents, my other siblings and I were sitting in the cooking hut which served as the kitchen, Dad started to raise his voice and everyone knew a fight was imminent. Mum hopped out of the house and locked the door from the outside – which meant my father and all of us children were locked inside. She circled the house to the window which had protective bars across it and simply gave Dad a piece of her mind. In my young mind I cheered Mum on but only in my head. After what seemed like eternity, she went over to spend the night at the coffee plantation. Dad and we children were locked up together in the kitchen hut. Early next morning she came back home and prepared breakfast. Dad did not say anything to her. He just continued to get ready for work as normal. Nothing was said to us. Clearly, something had changed in my Mum.”

And then,

“…several years later, when I was just 12 years old, Mum left home for precisely four weeks – which seemed like four decades to me – leaving behind nine children aged between 1 and 12 and a very confused husband. Mum didn’t tell anyone where she went. She simply told me to look after the younger children while she was gone. It was like she disappeared into thin air. It took the whole community to look for her; luckily she was found happy, well and alive and came back home gladly. After this event, I never saw Dad hit Mum again.”

Similarly, Gichuhi’s accounts of her relationship with husband William interweave their love and companionship with his alleged emotional, verbal, financial and eventually physical abuse. She writes of finding William in bed with her younger sister and losing “all faith in the institution of marriage”, unsure if she could ever trust William again. “I was so angry at God,” she writes.

Economic hardship is also an omnipresent, looming concern in Gichuhi’s account of her Kenyan childhood and also contributes to unequal power relations between sexes. As a child, Gichuhi writes she was continually reminded that education is the means of escaping the cycle of financial stress and low-paying work that was her parent’s reality.

The complex experiences recounted by Gichuhi provide some explanation as to the perplexing question of why she would self-publish a book that alleges her abuse at the hands of a husband to whom she is still married — especially with a forward written by the same man (who apparently hadn’t read the manuscript).

Although Gichuhi’s account is challenged by her husband, women like Gichuhi who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) have been identified as being part of a group of women at greater risk of experiencing domestic and family violence.

Although Gichuhi’s account is challenged by her husband, women like Gichuhi who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) have been identified as being part of a group of women at greater risk of experiencing domestic and family violence. Online services such as 1800 Respect often provide specific resources for CALD women.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children was released in May 2010 – an evidence‐based plan for reducing violence against women and their children, based on community consultation, assessing existing Australian and international research, investigating the effectiveness of legal systems and commissioning research on the economic costs of violence. The Plan covers the period from 2010–2022 and consists of four three-year action plans, with specific focuses.

At present, the Third Action Plan is being rolled out as it covers the period from 2016-2019. It includes specific measures aimed at improving Australian governments’ efforts to reduce domestic and family violence in these communities which were developed after 29 kitchen table conversations and a larger roundtable with CALD women.

These round tables revealed that CALD women can be less likely to report violence and experience more barriers in accessing support services and are less likely to leave a family violence situation than other Australian women.

The key national actions in the plan include:
• supporting community-driven initiatives to change attitudes towards violence and gender equality;
• engaging community and faith leaders to help change community attitudes about gendered violence and gender inequality; and
• designing, trialling and evaluating innovative models of perpetrator interventions to understand what works and to tailor initiatives targeted at CALD men.

It’s an ambitious national plan, but one that is desperately needed, with one woman in Australia per week on average murdered by her current or former partner. Given this context, Gichuhi’s story alleging her own experience of domestic family violence is an important contribution to the national conversation.

* In recounting what Gichuhi writes, Eternity is not stating the events took place, only that Gichuhi has written an account of alleged events.

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