Kenya’s parliament has passed a law intended to codify the existing customary law allowing for multiple spouses. However, the legislators went further and removed a provision that would give the existing spouse or spouses the right to veto a marriage. After female legislators stormed out of the session in protest, MP Junet Mohammed explained “When you marry an African woman, she must know the second one is on the way, and a third wife… this is Africa.”
The law shows the broad range of practices involving polygamy around the world. This is a clearly offensive version of the practice. As many know, I represent the Sister Wives in their successful challenge of the criminal polygamy law in Utah. However, the Brown family believes in divorce and the existing wives actually pick an additional wife under their faith.
There are also different forms of polygamy, which is an umbrella term. Polygamy actually refers to a broad array of different plural relationships from polygyny (with one husband and multiple wives, like the Browns) to polyandry (with a single wife and multiple husbands) to polyamory (with couples who reject exclusivity of sexual relations among married couples). The vast majority of these families are based on consenting relations of adults without abusive or criminal histories. For prior columns, click here and here.
The non-consensual element of this law is obviously outrageous and another denial of the rights of women. I do believe that both men and women have a right to engage in plural relationships like the “spiritual marriages” of the Browns. In Kenya, however, women are not allowed to marry more than one man.
The legislators noted that polygamy (though more accurately polygyny) has long been part of African and Islamic traditions. Legislators insist that the law only codifies what all women expect. Samuel Chepkong’a, chairman of the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee insisted “Any time a man comes home with a woman, that would be assumed to be a second or third wife . . . Under customary law, women or wives you have married do not need to be told when you’re coming home with a second or third wife. Any lady you bring home is your wife”.
The legislators also removed a provision allowing for financial damages when a partner promises to marry someone and backs out. Presumably, that was also a change benefiting males. However, legislators insisted that they just want to guarantee that marriage is based on love not money — an unlikely prospect in a country where young girls are historically handed over into marriage by their families.