Kenyan public opinion is divided over the Marriage Bill 2012, recently approved by the cabinet. One of the most talked about proposals is the legalisation of polygamy.
Polygamy is common among a number of Kenya’s ethnic groups. In some tribes, a man can marry as many wives as he wants, as long as he supports them and their children. But if Kenya’s parliament passes the new regulations, 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.
Some young people would welcome the change: “Having two or three wives is better than having one,” says student Harry Bor. “It is not sensible to put all your eggs in one basket. Commitment to one person is a 50-50 chance.”
More than one husband?
However, Joyce Kinyua, a student at the University of Nairobi, is concerned 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 recognises polygamy under Islamic and customary marriages but 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 recognising polygamy, the Marriage Bill 2012 would also recognise cohabiting couples as legally married if they have lived together for six months or more. This proposed regulation has seen Kenyan Facebook users beginning to post status updates such as ‘Five months, 29 days’.
But not everyone is ready to joke about the move.
“After six months, you might not even know the person well,” says Simon Muraguri, a businessman in Nairobi. He believes two years would be a more reasonable period. Muraguri himself has been cohabiting with Teresiah Njeri for six years.
The couple run various enterprises in the Kibera neighbourhood, and Muraguri believes his livelihood justifies his support of polygamy. “If I had money invested in many businesses, I would like somebody to manage the businesses,” he says. “I might marry another wife.”
Njeri disagrees: “To me, polygamy is not good. Let us say, the man marries a second woman, 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 has a child. He has his doubts about polygamy: “It was good thing a long time ago, but nowadays it is outdated,” he says. Ouma also cites the cost: “It is very expensive to maintain two women”.
The Marriage Bill 2012 would make dowry payments an optional arrangement rather than a mandatory part of the marriage process. A good move says Ouma: “I don’t advocate for bride price because it’s more or less like buying a fellow human being. It has to be natural love.”
While the bill gives polygamy the green light, it turns red when it comes to marriages between certain relations. People would 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.
It also explicitly rules out the possibility of same-sex unions, defining marriage as the “voluntary union of a man and a woman intended to last for their lifetime”.
And as the matrimonial debate continues in Kenya, Bor, the Nairobi college student, has a tip for other men who also have polygamy plans: don’t reveal your true intentions until the courtship is over. “If you tell one girl you [are] dating another girl, she will not stick around,” he says.
Ladies, you’ve been warned…