A Kenyan couple kiss at their wedding in Nairobi, on September 3, 2013 (AFP/File, Simon Maina)
The adoption by Kenya’s parliament of a controversial bill that legalises polygamy has provoked a fierce national debate pitting modern secular values and Christianity against local traditions.
Opponents are already lobbying President Uhuru Kenyatta not to sign off on the legislation, saying it threatens family values in a Christian-majority country, with female deputies also arguing that it also undermines women’s rights.
Supporters, however, argue that the bill merely recognises multiple customary unions which are still common in many Kenyan communities.
“The bill is a threat to our family values, considering that the majority of our people are Christians,” fumed Wanjiku Muhia, a female MP and one of many women deputies who stormed out of parliament last week in protest.
“Women of today have been empowered and they know their rights,” she said, accusing male MPs of blatant sexism. “I’d urge the president not to sign the bill into law, but to consider sending it back to parliament.”
The bill, passed last week, is designed to formalise customary law on marrying more than one person. The proposed bill had initially given a wife the right to veto her husband’s choice, but male members of parliament pushed through a text that dropped this clause.
Polygamy is common in Kenya, especially for those who can afford to maintain multiple wives, Nationwide, an estimated 1.8 million women and 700,000 men are classed as living in polygamous relationships, according to the Standard newspaper.
In many cases a man will have one legal wife, married in a lavish church ceremony and registered with the state, while subsequent wives are married in traditional tribal ceremonies.
“When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way, and a third wife… this is Africa,” one MP, Junet Mohammed, told the house.
According to Muhia, “this kind of language is… unacceptable because it amounts to abusing Kenyan women”.
“We walked out of the chamber because we felt that the language some of the male MPs were using was disrespectful to women, and was in bad taste,” she said.
– Tricky decision for president –
The National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK), which groups more than 40 churches and Christian organisations from across the East African nation, has also spoken out against the bill.
“The debate in the National Assembly was extremely demeaning to the women of our country and the bill itself does not respect the principle of equality of spouses in marriage, especially with regard to polygamy,” it said in a statement issued this week.
The Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA) has also vowed to mount a legal challenge if the president signs the bill into law.
Kenyatta has so far refused to publicly declare what his position is on the issue, but it could present him with a difficult dilemma in which he has to reconcile his Christian faith and his espousal of African values.
“As President Kenyatta makes up his mind on what to do with the bill, we would want to urge him to put a premium on the place of family in national stability,” the influential Standard newspaper also wrote in an editorial that argued Kenya’s social fabric could be undone.
But Sam Chepkonga, chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs and a supporter of the bill, said the legislation merely acknowledges something that is already widespread.
“The bill consolidates all marriage types. It’s intended to bring civil law, where a man is only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners,” he told AFP.
Judy Thongori, a prominent family lawyer, agreed that Kenya need to provide a modern legal framework for traditional practices — whether among Kenya’s many tribes or its Muslim community, which make up 20 percent of the population.
“One big difference is that the new bill provides recognition and registration of customary unions, and we cannot wish away these customary marriages,” she said.
Margaret Mutua, a 27-year-old university graduate, said that regardless of the legislation, most Kenyan women accepted their husbands would be looking elsewhere.
“I don’t really care much,” she said, “because either way our men are likely to marry more than one wife, whether legally or not.”