Polygamy May Seem Like A Man's Dream, But Kenyan Women Are Not Happy

Kenyan lawmakers recently passed a bill that legalizes polygamy without a wife's consent. Member of Parliament Annah Nyokabi Gathecha explains why she walked out of the voting session.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's head to Kenya now, where there is a new focus on marriage laws. As you probably know, a number of African countries have been in the news of late because of their efforts to discourage same-sex relationships through law. Our focus today is on a law that speaks to what's called traditional marriage, and that includes polygamy. Last week, the Kenyan Parliament passed a bill that legalizes polygamy and allows some men to take multiple wives without having to consult their current spouse. Here is one member of parliament arguing for this provision.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you marry an African woman, she must (inaudible) the second is on the way, the third on is on the way, the fourth one is on the way (inaudible).

MARTIN: Comments like that sparked a walkout by a majority of women members, including the Honorable Annah Nyokabi Gathecha, who had this to say on the floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ANNAH NYOKABI GATHECHA: If you choose to marry, it's not that there is an objection to that, but I think it's important that you, as the man of the house, inform the rest of your wives that you will agree that you're bringing in another person.

MARTIN: Now the bill is now awaiting the president's signature. And while some activists are still upset, others say this move to bring traditional marriages into a legal framework alongside those of other religions actually offers some needed protections for women and girls. And that's the view taken by the Honorable Annah Nyokabi Gathecha - the person who was speaking earlier. And she is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

GATHECHA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Can ask you what brought this bill forward to begin with? I understand that marriage laws hadn't been updated in Kenya for a century, is that right?

GATHECHA: That's right. We've had the marriage bill that was operational before this one that we've passed from 1901 - the colonial marriage laws. All we've had is just amendments that - but we haven't had a complete inclusive marriage bill. And it has been a while, it has had several female cabinet ministers in tears as they've tried to bring forth a marriage bill that protected every single person within the marriage institution, but it was not to be simply because you were not able to - whenever you go with marriage, there's also the marriage divorce and the property associated. So it had been very difficult to change.

Many times you bring in the issue of property and succession rates within Kenya, it just - I think anywhere within an African context it's a very difficult and emotive subject. So we were able to separate the two, the marriage property act and the marriage bill that dealt with just the definition of what a marriage is, who can be able to perform a marriage ceremony, the contracting parities, the age, the definition. And then of course to definitely bring in and to recognize all other marriages, whether it's Christian, Hindu, Muslim, the traditional civil marriages - all of them are now looked at under this particular bill.

MARTIN: Now what were some of the problems that you were trying to address with this? I mean, as I understand it, there were situations where a person died and that there were marriage partners that were unknown to others...

GATHECHA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Until the death. Is that right?

GATHECHA: What happens - if the husband is living in different cities, he may have contracted a traditional marriage upcountry in his home area, where he's working in the city he'll contract another marriage. There may be other side-marriages on the side that may not be known. The requirement that every single marriage in Kenya be registered is one of the greatest wins that we have had because we find that upon the death of the husband, all of a sudden we have him and all his other partners coming up with their various families that they've had and nobody knew about them. And sometimes even when they do do the traditional marriage ceremonies, depending on the interests of the siblings of the man who has passed on, it becomes difficult for them to recognize or to agree to recognize 'cause they'd rather divide the property among themselves and leave out this particular - the wife that has been left there.

So you find that there in many cases where the husband has passed on, they try to throw the woman out of the homestead, they don't want to recognize the children and all kinds of suffering takes place as, you know, they try to eject them out of the home. What we wanted to accomplish with this particular marriage bill is to recognize every single marriage and to have it registered so there would be no disputing - whether you do it under traditional law or whatever it is, it needs to be registered so that those families are granted the protection under the marriage bill.

MARTIN: You know, internationally, as you might imagine, a lot of people are focusing on the plural marriage aspect of it, but you were also telling us that that only applies to people in traditional and Muslim marriages, right, for example, if you were to marry in a Christian church under Christian norms, you would not be permitted multiple marriages - is that correct?

GATHECHA: That is correct. When you mention polygamy, it seems like it's a man's dream to be able to have as many wives as possible, but once you start a marriage or the union that you enter into, if it's a monogamous union, you cannot change halfway. And that's why most of the churches were in an uproar, but there is really a lack of understanding in people who haven't read the marriage bill to see what it is that we were trying to do. One, if you're in a civil marriage, you go marry another woman - that's bigamy. Within a Christian marriage, you cannot marry more than one wife, and it says so according to the various religions, and therefore you cannot change halfway and say that you've become traditional. That was not the agreement at the outset of the marriage and that's why it's important for those deciding or choosing to enter into contract into the various marriages they understand what it is that they're getting into. So if you start a union monogamous, it goes monogamous right until the end.

MARTIN: I know that the age limit was also very important to you and a number of other members - for example, the law now stipulates that the age of consent for marriage has now been set at 18. How is this going to be enforced?

GATHECHA: Every chief district commissioner, sub chief - sub-administrator, these are all people who are out in the village areas. We are hoping that they will, and be able to report all of these because of the requirement for you to register. You cannot register marriage to somebody who is under the age of 18. There's a requirement for you to state your full names, the contracting spouse, the parents and to bring the birth registration for each of the partners. So this, we're hoping, will go a long way in protecting the young girls within the society from early child marriages.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the whole thing now? As we mentioned earlier, you were one - among the members who walked out at a certain point in the debate. I was curious about what exactly made you walk out - you know, was it spontaneous, was it just that you felt it was just - you were being disrespected or - and how do you feel about the whole package now?

GATHECHA: We felt we were being disrespected. It became ridiculous that to a point where nobody was listening to any reason and all they wanted to do was just, once they get the microphone, to make as outrageous a statement as they can in order to I guess rally the male members of parliament that were available to support them in this particular cause 'cause when you think about it rationally, depending on which particular tradition, a man did not go out to look for the second wife, it is the first wife who looked for the second wife. So for them to come out and try to be so bravado and thump their chests, it's actually not productive. Just to me, and to most of the women parliamentarians who where there, felt that it was just completely wrong, the way that they chose to engage the whole debate.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the total package? Do you want the president to sign it?

GATHECHA: When we take a look at those who have been contracted now in the polygamist marriage and especially out in the rural areas where they don't have access to the right kind of educational - proper education within this, they don't have access to most of the facilities that people within urban areas have - I think it's an important gain. Will the president sign? I don't know but, you know, we can always amend and we are looking to get together after six months to put in the amendments to ensure that the aspect of at least informing does take place.

MARTIN: We've mentioned that there has been an move across a number of countries, in both East and West Africa, to address the question of same-sex relationships through law. In a number of countries, the penalties for engaging in same-sex relationships have been substantially enhanced. Now this law states very clearly that marriage is a voluntary union of a man or a woman and, in some cases, multiple women - so is the issue of same-sex relationships addressed at all or will it be?

GATHECHA: It is. Currently same-sex relationships are illegal. There were certain clauses that were amended to ensure that same-sex union issues will not be brought in through the back door or through any amendment that would come in and that was why we chose to define a marriage as between a man and a woman or women. As to whether the mood in the country is to introduce that particular law - given that it's already banned within the current constitution, then it just - I guess it remains as is.

MARTIN: The Honorable Annah Nyokabi Gathecha is a member of parliament for Kiambu County. She joined us via the BBC studios in Nairobi, Kenya. A member of parliament, thank you so much for joining us, we appreciate it.

GATHECHA: Thank you.

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