25 February 2012

Kenya: Women Are Battering Abusive Husbands? About Time

Recent incidents of husband-beating in Central Province have reignited debate on the subject of gender equality.

In the days leading up to the referendum on the Constitution, expressions on the matter broadly tended towards an acceptance across the gender divide of the principle of gender equality.

While no one yet is calling for amendment of the constitutional provisions on gender equality, there is discernible suspicion in the various expressions coming in the wake of the beatings that women's empowerment has gone too far and has upset the natural order of things.

This sentiment was well captured by an article in the Daily Nation that opined, "There is a gradual shift in power from patriarchy to matriarchy."

These views have distorted the reality of women in order to justify the return of an old way of thinking.

The reality, though, remains that large numbers of women from all backgrounds continue to suffer physical and emotional abuse, as a daily check at the Nairobi Women's Hospital will verify.

Reports in the media also show increasing cases of brutal killing of women by their husbands or boyfriends.

And for many women and girls, rape continues to be an ever present possibility, as the vice becomes ever more prevalent in both urban and rural areas.

Despite a government ban, marrying off girls as young as nine continues in some communities, the highlighting of which at a recent state function brought President Mwai Kibaki to tears.

In other areas, female genital mutilation, despite being illegal, thrives.

Tortured and dehumanised

Add to these woes the fact that the number of women in decision-making positions in both the private and public sector constitutes a tiny minority, and the picture that emerges is one -- as Earnest Emenyonu, commenting on the novels of Buchi Emecheta, writes -- "of a tortured and dehumanised womanhood."

The debate on gender equality comes on the heels of intense, sometimes violent, squabbling over the delimitation of new constituencies mandated by the new Constitution.

At public hearings in various parts of the country, commissioners of the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission have been shouted down and accused of discriminating against this or that tribe, this or that clan in the allocation of constituencies.

The IEBC has now taken its proposed new constituency boundaries to parliament where, we can be sure, the debate will continue along the same lines.

The criteria set by the Constitution for the drawing up of boundaries do not mention tribal or clan homogeneity, the underlying assumption being that people would mobilise on the basis of "community of interest."

Even though it will now be largely impossible for tribal favouritism in the allocation of opportunism and resources to occur, the agitation for new boundaries was informed by old tribal anxieties.

These two debates, though seemingly unrelated, demonstrate that the process of change is driven as much by objective analysis as it is hampered by subjective impulses, for in the first instance, a few incidents of husband beating, sensationalised out of context by the media, cause many to distort reality and regress to old ways of thinking about gender relations, while the second shows that tribe is still the basis of solidarity and political mobilisation.

Paradigm shift

In other words, both show that Kenyans have not yet internalised the "purpose and object" of the new Constitution.

The new Constitution is a paradigm shift not only on the level of governance, but also on the cultural and personal levels. In order to conform to its purpose and object, we have to learn new habits of thought and behaviour.

The concept of marriage as a unit that has to have a domineering head has to change into one of a partnership of mutual respect.

Tribe has to be replaced by "community of interest" as the basis for solidarity and mobilisation; we must learn to agitate as professionals, hawkers, business people, workers, etc, and not as Kikuyus or Luos.

We must understand, as a matter of urgency, that the new Constitution of Kenya has not overturned the natural order of things; it has re-established the natural order of things. The order of things as our creator intended.

Tee Ngugi is a social and political commentator based in Nairobi.

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