20 November 2012

Kenya: New Marriage Bill Gets Kenyans Parlaying Polygamy

Photo: Capital FM
Marriage: prenuptial agreements bill to be passed

Kenya is showing mixed reactions to the cabinet's recently approved Marriage Bill 2012. One of its most conversation-generating proposals is to legalize polygamy.

At the beginning of the 20th century, polygamy was a common practice among several of Kenya's ethnic tribes. In some of them, a man was allowed to marry as many wives as he wanted under the stipulation that he take good care of them all, plus their children.

But if Kenyan Parliament passes the Marriage Bill 2012, polygamy won't be restricted to certain tribes or, for that matter, religions. The bill has been structured to take into account Islamic, Christian, Hindu and traditional marriage provisions.

And some young people would welcome the revision.

"Having two or three wives is better than having one," says Harry Bor, a local college student. "It is not sensible to put all your eggs in one basket. Commitment to one person is a 50-50 chance."

Joyce Kinyua, a student at the University of Nairobi, seems concerned above all about the bill's inequality. "I would consider having many husbands if given the opportunity. If a man can have more than one wife, why can't a woman have more than one husband?" she asks.

Kenya's existing marriage bill, which recognizes polygamy under Islamic and customary marriages, does not permit polyandry, the practice of having more than one husband.

Fellow University of Nairobi student Lucia Stella questions how sensible the new proposal is. "Whether the bill is passed or not, polygamy will still happen on the sidelines," she says. "Polygamy is a problem at some point. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, some of the spouses might feel left out."


Apart from the recognition of polygamy, the Marriage Bill 2012 seeks to recognize cohabiting couples as legally married if they have lived together for six months or more. A humorous invocation of the pre-marital validation period observed among Kenyan Facebook users in recent days was the status update 'Five months, 29 days'.

But not everyone feels ready to joke about it.

"After six months, you might not have even known the person well," says Simon Muraguri, a businessman in Nairobi. He believes that two years would be a more reasonable timeframe. In fact, it's for six years that Muraguri has been cohabiting with Teresiah Njeri. The pair runs a couple of enterprises in the Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi, and it might not be a stretch to say that Muraguri's livelihood provides a justification for his support of polygamy.

"If I had money invested in many businesses, I would like somebody to manage the businesses," he says. "I would marry maybe another wife."

To that, Njeri responds: "To me, polygamy is not good. Let us say the man will marry the second wife, yet I am the first wife. He won't bother with me. He will concentrate on the second wife."


Living down the street from the cohabiting couple is Bonny Ouma. He is currently separated from his wife with whom he shares a child, and his views on polygamy are a little different.

"It was good a long time ago, but nowadays it is outdated," he says.

Ouma also cites the related costs in education, feeding and clothing. "It is very expensive to maintain two women," he adds.

But for the marrying types who are saving their shillings, there's a plus side. The Marriage Bill 2012 aims to make dowry payments an optional arrangement rather than a mandatory part of the marriage process.

"I don't advocate for bride price because it's more or less like buying a fellow human being," Ouma says, despite his financial concerns. "It has to be natural love."

Other restrictions

While the Marriage Bill 2012 gives polygamy the green light, it flashes red when it comes to marriages between certain relations. People would thus be forbidden from marrying blood relatives, step-parents and the former spouses of one's grandchild, child, parent or grandparent, as well as anyone younger than 18.

In a move seen as a measure to prevent controversy resulting from same-sex marriages, the bill defines marriage as the "voluntary union of a man and a woman intended to last for their lifetime".

A provision, too, exists that would allow the union to be nullified if one of the partners is found to have been drunk, under the influence of drugs or insane at the time of consenting to the marriage.

Meanwhile, as matrimonial debates continue across Kenya, Bor, the Nairobi college student, has a tip for men with polygamy plans: don't reveal such intentions until the courting is over. "If you tell one girl you [are] dating another girl, she will not stick around," he says.

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