A controversial new marriage bill legalising polygamy in Kenya has triggered outrage, with HIV activists claiming it may increase HIV infections among married couples. This, activists warn, may thwart the government's promise to reach zero new HIV infections by 2015.
The bill was signed earlier this week by President Uhuru Kenyatta after a heated debate in parliament over its being passed, which saw female MPs walk out in protest.
Polygamy is a common practice in some communities in Kenya according to customary law, as long as the husband is able to cater for his wives and children.
But in civil marriages polygamy was previously prohibited. Christian leaders were among those who urged the president against signing the bill.
Whole family at risk
Purity Akinyi, member of a network of professionals living with HIV, believes the legalisation of polygamy is a gateway to increasing HIV infections in marriages.
"A married man having extra-marital activities is careful and has protected sex but when the mistress becomes wife, he will definitely stop thus putting his entire family at risk!" she observed.
The bill stipulates there should be no limit on the number of polygamous marriages a man can enter into. However activists argue that married couples are already among those most at risk of HIV, because of extra-marital activities, and fear what further damage the bill will do if men are legally allowed to marry as many women as they like.
According to a survey by Kenya Central Bureau of Statistics, people with more than one sexual partner are active players in fuelling the HIV epidemic. The Kenya AIDS epidemic
Update 2011 states that although Kenyans exhibit high levels of HIV-related knowledge and collectively they have adopted notable changes in sexual behaviours, substantial unsafe sexual behaviour still persists. Condom use remains sub-optimal, and many Kenyans have multiple sexual partners.
Jane*, aged 28, whose community embraces polygamy, regrets that she became infected with HIV when she got married as a third wife.
She stresses that before she moved in with her husband, they had been tested for HIV and both were negative. Two years later, in an anti-natal care clinic, she tested positive.
"I strongly oppose this bill because you can never guess which of the four of us infected the others," she said, adding that the blame-game has since been the order of the day in her family.
Protecting women and children
But some women do support the bill as they believe it protects the family. Annah Nyokabi, member of the National Assembly, said: "When marriages are registered, both the children and the women are protected. Kenyans have been well-educated on HIV and it calls for personal responsibility to protect one's family, however large."
According to Nyokabi, children and women are victimised by irresponsible men, who abandon the woman after she gets pregnant. In desperation, the woman may turn to sex work to feed the child, putting herself at more risk.
Yet the fact remains that extra-marital affairs are putting women at risk.
The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (2003) reports that 11 per cent of married men have extra-marital partners, as opposed to two per cent of married women. "Instead of indulging in extra-marital sex, the man should legally recognise that woman as his wife," says Nyokabi.
A Nairobi family lawyer, Boniface Njiru, has been in a polygamous marriage for over 30 years. He views men as polygamous by nature and advises men to satisfy their wives equally, both sexually and materially, to stop them from straying from their matrimonial homes.
"While a section of the bill states that a woman cannot have multiple marriages simultaneously, an unsatisfied woman is likely to seek solace elsewhere," he says.
Impact on spread of HIV
Njiru believes that women are safer from HIV infection while in marriage than unmarried, their position in the marriage notwithstanding.
He argues that it would be very difficult for a man who is well treated at home to engage in extramarital activities. "What would a man with five beautiful wives be lacking, to go looking for out of the marriage?" he asked.
But activists remain sceptical, believing the bill is undermining the many HIV campaigns to help Kenya reach the Millennium Development Goal of zero new HIV infections.
"Every woman has a right to enjoy married life and the government should understand that the higher the number of sexual partners [in a marriage], the higher the risk of HIV infection," noted Dorothy Onyango, executive director of Women Fighting AIDS in Kenya. She said that if any of the wives became infected with HIV, she would put the entire family, including infants and unborn children, at risk.
*Name changed to protect identity