Tag: East Africa

What’s the point of polygamy?

Do you have a concubine, a ‘side dish’ or a ‘small house’? In Kenya, now is apparently the time to bring them out so they can be registered officially. Do not be shy, do not hide them. It is time to make the illicit clean and chaste.

It’s been official as of March 20 2014, when a Bill allowing polygamy was passed by our Parliament. If you’re married to a Kenyan man, he can bring home the other woman without your consent – and with the government’s blessings.

One MP, Junet Mohammed, even told her colleagues, “When you marry an African woman she must know the second one is on the way and a third wife..”

But the question is, why?

What do African men need with all these women? What good does it do to the women in the relationship or even the men themselves?

To answer that, I think one must tackle a more important question: What is the point of polygamy? What is the basis for it other than men wanting to have more than one ‘honey’ and a host of different places to sleep at night?

There have been a number of arguments for the role of polygamy within tradition, but none remains as strong as the core one: “It’s our culture”.

As much as we must pay homage to culture, we need to remember it is based on the needs of society and is not static. We must analyse if the reasons for having a particular tradition still hold true.

In the case of polygamy, one can see why the reasons for this practice no longer apply.

Firstly, the economy in Kenya is not what it used to be. The boom that we saw at the beginning of the Kibaki regime has stalled, halted (and some say even reversed) in the past years. The price of food has risen and there is barely enough money going around for people to run one household, let alone two, three or four. Having one household is not a cultural or moral issue; it is just good business sense.

What tends to happen to the average woman in a polygamous relationship is that one household suffers at the expense of another. When one household starts living the good life (cars, expensive schools, holidays etc), funds are diverted from another household. The man benefits regardless of which wife has these ‘perks’, but it’s not an equal arrangement for the women (and children) involved.

On argument that stems from ‘pre-colonial times’ is that polygamy was a way of empire-building. A full house was a powerful house. Children were seen as a source of wealth. However, in this day and age, one need only look at the price of higher education and the children-turned-adults who live with their parents for extended periods of time, sometimes till the ripe old age of 30. Children are not the investment they used to be.

Furthermore, with the rise of absentee fathers in our society, one must question whether men can really be entrusted with the responsibility of parenting children in multiple households when some can barely manage being a father in one.  The strange thing is that these very men who are already negligent of their parental responsibilities are the most vocal about wanting multiple households.

Other reasons for polygamy hold equally as little weight:

  • It is a form of birth control for women: No, we have the pill now.
  • For political alliances: Now you can merely join your local political party. They will handle the alliances on your behalf. Or you can run for office yourself.
  • Agricultural manpower: Children helped farm the earth for food. Well, try going to your local supermarket today with more than two family members and then explain this to me as a justification for polygamy.
  • For male sexual gratification: Now this one is a good one. The world has gone through waves of sexual revolutions and women are no longer passive participants in sex.  The statistics are that a large majority of heterosexual women have never had an orgasm. Handle one woman first, then we can talk.

And if we are going to have polygamy then why can we not have polyandry? If men can be seen to run more than one household then, in the spirit of gender equality, should the same courtesy not be extended to women? Give the average woman an Excel spreadsheet, a car with fuel and some stretching exercises to keep limber and in top shape and watch her show you what running more than one household is about.

A great number of households already suffer from a chronic case of absentee fathers and ‘men-missing-till-midnight’ syndrome. Should we really then institutionalise a practice that is already being somewhat abused? Or could this law possibly strengthen the entire sordid situation by giving women and children who remain in vulnerable situations legal rights?

Could this law possibly be a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, register them’?

I believe there are many men who do not understand the emotional, financial and social responsibilities that come with polygamy. We need to figure out why exactly polygamy is so important outside of being ‘part of tradition’. And if we cannot answer this question then we should not be engaging in polygamy.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of holaafrica.org, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter@tiffmugo

Alarm as Uganda moves to criminalise deliberate HIV transmission

Activists in Uganda, where HIV prevalence is on the rise, have warned that new legislation criminalising deliberate transmission of the virus will further undermine efforts to stem the Aids epidemic and erode the rights of those living with HIV.

As well as setting out fines and jail terms of up to 10 years for those found guilty of “willful and intentional” transmission, the HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Bill, passed by Parliament on May 8 and now awaiting presidential assent, also obliges pregnant women and their partners to take HIV tests, and in some circumstances empowers health workers to unilaterally disclose a patient’s positive status to an at-risk partner or household member. It also obliges parents to tell their children of their status.

“Despite years of engagement and labouring to explain the dangers on an HIV-specific criminal law, Parliament has refused to be advised. When experts on HIV research and management attempted to speak, [lawmakers] still failed to heed to the key concerns,” Dorah Kinconco Musinguzi, executive director of Uganda Network on Law, Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UgaNet), told IRIN.

“If we have not managed to test 67% of Ugandans for HIV without a law that punishes transmission, will this number improve when citizens know that more legal burdens are added to testing? The answer is no. Will their behaviour improve because of this fear? No. Will we have helped the HIV situation then? No. We shall have more people transmit HIV in ignorance of their status. Laws do little to change behaviour, instead it takes behaviour underground,” she said.

Over the past five years HIV prevalence in Uganda has risen from 6.4% to 7.3%.

“The evidence from the Ugandan Ministry of Health shows clearly – criminalisation of HIV doesn’t work. It drives people away from services and fuels discrimination and fear,” Asia Russell of the HIV advocacy organisation Health GAP, told IRIN.

(Pic: Mujahid Safodien / IRIN)
(Pic: Mujahid Safodien / IRIN)

Alex Ario, the national co-ordinator of the ministry’s AIDS Control Programme (ACP), said “the Bill may not be that useful in my view. It does not add value to the current efforts. Actually, with dwindling support from donor communities to ACP as it is now, we would rather divert efforts to lobby government of Uganda to put more money for HIV activities rather than legislating against people with HIV.”

“We need to redirect legislative reform, and law enforcement, towards addressing sexual and other forms of violence against women, and discrimination and other human rights violations against people living with HIV and people most at risk of exposure to HIV,” he said.

Russell added that in conjunction with the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which passed into law in February 2014, this new law could lead “a sex worker apprehended for sex work, who is transgender and HIV positive, [to] be sent to prison for life.”

UgaNet’s Musinguzi said: “This [Bill] will hurt the women we have been encouraging to come up to take an HIV test such that they can have HIV-free children. But in this case, they will be forced to disclose their results and should they fear, and not do it in time, that means that they are potential candidates for [prosecution under] the Bill…

“There is high likelihood that justice will not prevail for the HIV-positive [people] found in this situation because of the high levels of stigma and condemnation that we have seen the HIV-positive go through,” she added.

More than 150 000 people are becoming HIV-positive every year; 1.5-million Ugandans are HIV-positive, according to Uganda Aids Commission statistics.

The Bill also flies in the face of the “rights-based” approach to HIV embodied in the regional HIV/AIDS Act passed in April 2012 by the East African Legislative Assembly.

Those in favour… 
Meanwhile, some MPs have been defending the Bill.

“Every piece of legislation is to prevent mischief. The Bill is both [a] legal and moral thing. We want to reduce down HIV deliberate infections,” Medard Lubega Ssegona, opposition shadow minister for justice and constitutional affairs, told IRIN.

“The Bill will encourage more people to go and test for their good. It will compel two consenting adults to test before they engage to each other because of the sanctions of false disclosure,” he said, adding: “The deliberate infections have caused a lot of burden [on] our economy. The government spends a lot of money on treating and taking care of people who have [been] deliberately infected by people with bad hearts. This is going to stop.”

Olivia Kwagala Kabaale, a legislator from the ruling National Resistance Movement party, said: “The mandatory disclosure will help to protect those who take care of the HIV sick people. Some of these people don’t want to disclosure their status yet they pose a risk of transmission of the virus to others.”

Laws in Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania also criminalise deliberate HIV transmission, leaving Rwanda the only member of the East African Community not to do so.

The new Bill also establishes the legal framework for an HIV Trust Fund to finance local-level programmes using money generated by levies on bank transactions and savings interest, air tickets, beer, soft drinks and cigarettes, as well taxes on goods and services traded within Uganda.

“The Bill is creating [an] HIV trust fund which is going to help the government raise local funds to support the HIV programme. It’s a right time for us now as a country to mobilize our own resources to fight the epidemic. We have been depending on donor support for our HIV fight,” said Kabaale.

Kenya: Dozens dead after drinking illegal alcohol

(Pic: Gallo)
(Pic: Gallo)

At least 50 people in Kenya have died this week from drinking illegal liquor, local media and officials said on Tuesday.

They said dozens more people were hospitalised and several went blind. Television footage showed victims writhing in pain in hospitals in the eastern and central counties of Embu, Kitui and Kiambu.

In Kiambu County, where 11 people died, Police Commander James Mugera said authorities were looking out for more victims. Embu Police Commander William Okello said at least 24 people died while 77 were in hospital after consuming the brew.

Kenya’s KTN television reported a total of 50 deaths, while Citizen TV report 61 deaths.

The spirits probably all originated from one batch, John Mututho, chairman of the state-run National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse, told Citizen TV.

Drinking dens selling illicit home brews from jerry cans are common in the back streets of many Kenyan towns and villages. They prompted Mututho, a former lawmaker, to sponsor a landmark alcohol-control law in 2010, but the law has proved ineffective.

“One of the ladies who is now blind said they started drinking at 5am.,” Mututho told Citizen. “There is no outlet in Kenya which is authorised to open at 5am. In fact, the earliest it should be (is) 5pm.”

In June 2005, 45 people were killed from illegal alcohol laced with methanol to boost its strength. Five years earlier, about 130 people died from a toxic batch in Nairobi.

Criminalisation will not stop FGM in East Africa

Since female genital mutilation (FGM) has been outlawed in Ethiopia, some rural families have been holding clandestine circumcisions, said parents at confidential focus group discussions in Ethiopia for Oxford University’s Young Lives study. Often, the ritual takes place at night in order to evade prosecution, with girls at even greater risk due to poor lighting or the use of less experienced practitioners.

As a 10-year-old, Ayu, who lives in the rural Oromia region, wanted to complete her education and become a teacher instead of getting married young. But at the age of 14 she underwent FGM and by 16 she had left school and got married.

Ayu’s mother explained that the cutting was done at Ayu’s request. “After she heard a girl insulting another who was not circumcised, my daughter came home and asked me to organise her circumcision. She told me she does not want to be insulted in the same way.” And while her mother thought Ayu was not ready for marriage at 16 she was much more concerned about the risks her daughter would face as a young woman without the protection of a husband. “We live in corrupt and dangerous times,” she said. “It is better that she is married early.”

In Somaliland, the health messages about the risks associated with FGM (sometimes referred to as FGC, female genital cutting) have led to more girls undergoing clitoridectomy (the removal of the clitoris) instead of the more extreme infibulation (which involves the removal of the clitoris as well as the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal). But a World Vision study, “Examining the links between the practices of FGM/C and early marriage”, found that since the pressure to stop infibulation has increased, the pressure on girls to marry young has intensified because they fear being perceived as more open to premarital sex if they have not had the procedure. As 15-year-old Faiza explained: “It is better for my dignity to have a husband and children now.”

Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation, campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)
Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation, campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. (Pic: AFP)

Martha Tureti, World Vision’s gender and development co-ordinator in Kenya, believes criminalisation has failed to eradicate the practice in the country. And stand-alone interventions, such as setting up rescue centres or introducing alternative rites of passage, have not been enough to alter deeply imbedded attitudes that put a high premium on girls’ sexual reputations and premarital virginity.

“If you only focus on the girls, the community still go ahead with the cutting anyway,” Martha told us. “We realised the importance of including boys so that they understand the dangers of FGM because otherwise they still demand to marry girls who have been cut.”

In northern Kenya, World Vision has sponsored the development of rites of passage that retain traditions like teaching the girls about their future adult roles, but replace FGM with reproductive health education that includes knowledge about the effects of genital cutting. One key to success has been persuading communities to identify their own adaptations to old traditions instead of trying to impose change from outside; holding ceremonies that include public endorsements from community leaders; and offering alternative income sources to the cutters. For example, a World Vision-sponsored ceremony involving 10-year-old girls in the northern district of Naivasha included the public endorsement of a local politician, as well as pledges from former cutters that they would abandon the practice in return for the gift of some goats that would provide them with alternative means of earning a livelihood.

A clear message from both the Young Lives and the World Vision research is that legal prohibition and intensive advocacy campaigns have not been enough to eradicate FGM. This is often because families feel unable to take the social consequences of making changes that go against the norm in close-knit traditional communities. So work towards the abandonment of FGM and early marriage must engage with the whole community and address the social norms that underpin the practices.

It is difficult for outsiders to predict what unintended consequences might arise in each circumstance as every community responds to change in different ways. But the Young Lives’ focus group findings demonstrate the importance of understanding from community members why some continue practicing FGM despite prohibition. World Vision’s experience has been that change is more likely if all the different interest groups in a community are involved in a non-judgmental dialogue about which solutions will work for them.

Ultimately, strategies to prevent FGM need to engage with the root causes of both FGM and early marriage: namely the unequal status of women and men, the desire to control female sexual activity and limited economic opportunities for women and girls.

Names have been changed at the request of World Vision.

Kirrily Pells is policy officer at Oxford University’s Young Lives study of childhood poverty, and Lorriann Robinson is senior child rights policy adviser at World Vision UK

‘When Women Speak’: Exploring Kenyan feminisms


Fungai Machirori interviews Brenda Wambui and Michael Onsando, co-founders of the Kenyan thought leadership platform Brainstorm. They recently launched a quarterly online journal with the first edition titled ‘When Women Speak’.

Can you briefly tell me when and how the idea of this journal came about and why you chose feminism as your first topic?

Brenda Wambui (BW): We had been toying with the idea of a quarterly supplement/e-book since late last year. Having published an essay a week on the Brainstorm site for six months, it felt natural as we wanted to expand our content offering and create bodies of work around issues we feel are important to the Kenyan existence.

Also, we had been getting pulled into discussions that revolved around feminism frequently and realised that there were a lot of misconceptions about feminism. So feminism was at the top of both our heads.

The articles in the journal are quite in-depth. And furthermore, the journal is distributed online. Some might argue you are preaching to the converted.

BW: You would be surprised to learn that even online, we have several people who wake up each day and disparage women just for the hell of it. People still mock and bully feminists online for having the courage to speak out. These people, too, need to see what we have written. It is easy to think that just because people are online and have internet access, they will not be sexist because they have easy access to information that can change this, but this is not the case.

About the articles being in depth; that is why we decided to do this on a quarterly basis as opposed to monthly. People can take their time to read and re-read the e-book, as the next one only comes out in three months.

Michael Onsando (MO): We really tried to keep the language simple and to the point. We hope to reach the people who still think feminism is out of reach of the ordinary citizen.

How freely do Kenyan women identify as feminists?

BW: It used to be that being a feminist was a bad thing, because as the stereotype goes, feminists are ugly and angry because no man wants them. However, with the rise of the internet, and especially social media like Facebook and Twitter, women who identify as feminists have been able to articulate what we are fighting for, which is equal rights and equal opportunities for women and men. With this increased understanding, more and more women are willing to identify as feminists.

And how freely do Kenyan men identify as feminists?

MO: Not many men identify as feminist. The feminist has been painted as a bitter single woman. Therefore, identifying as feminist creates a situation where one’s masculinity is called into question; I know mine has. And even the men who would be feminists don’t like the word, as if it is dirty and as if using it will somehow kill them. This is not to say that there are no Kenyan men that identify as feminist. They exist, and I feel dearly for them. But those against vastly outnumber those for.

There’s a poignant thought in one of the pieces: “I don’t know if our mothers think their sons are not the boys … that will hurt women. If they do, I don’t know if their fear that their daughters might be raped is equal to the fear that their sons may one day rape.” From a Kenyan perspective, what do you attribute this to?

MO: There is a lot to be said about nurture. There is a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude here. As if, from birth, the male child has been given up on. Of course, it falls back to the patriarchal nature of society. The man will continue to be allowed to do as he wills while the woman submits. This is what we are taught. This is what we learn.

And then there’s the rapist. The rapist is constructed as a faraway mythical creature that is easily identifiable by how he walks talks, smells and acts. No one dares imagine that the rapist could be well-groomed, eloquent and middle class. Yet, more often than not, he is.

BW: Women are usually the ones who are warned against many things. Almost all parents will warn their daughters against being out at night, wearing short or tight clothes, getting pregnant at an early age and instruct them to wait for sex within marriage. Yet they rarely ask themselves who is going to harm or impregnate their daughters. Is it not young men like their sons? Parents believe that their sons are not the ones raping or harassing girls; but the statistics say otherwise.

You say you seek to redefine Kenyan feminisms. However, the language of feminism remains embedded in historical and emerging American feminist rhetoric – rape culture, privilege, intersectionality, self-care – much of which is to be found in ‘When Women Speak’. Can you redefine feminism without redefining its accompanying language?

BW: I feel that there are only so many words we can invent to describe something – feminism over the years has done a great job of hashing out language and terminology, and describing what is problematic and what is not. The language used by feminists, in my opinion, is okay. What we need to do now is to contextualise the conversations to Kenya, and Africa. When you read about rape culture in New York, you may become wiser but still unable to apply it to your own existence.

MO: The thing is, we speak a western language. It is almost impossible to find ‘Africanness’ within English. And even if we manage, somehow westernisation will creep in. I think this is why a lot of African feminists struggle with language. There is something about finding one’s tongue within a language that doesn’t fully accommodate your existence that is very frustrating.

Is there space in today’s world to not identify as feminist, but yet embrace its ideals?

BW: I encounter this argument a lot and it saddens me because many people want equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women, but do not want to be identified as feminists, probably due to misinformation and negative stereotypes. That is why we sought to (re)define feminism in our e-book. Perhaps once people are well informed about what feminism hopes to achieve, they will more easily identify with it.

MO: I think the idea of identity these days is used to skirt around many issues and to alienate others. There are presumptions that come about with identity and that’s why many people chose to, or not to, identify as many things – particularly as feminists. What’s more important to me is what you stand for. If you’re standing on the side that fights for justice then, I find, I hardly care what you decide to identify as.

‘When Women Speak’ is available for free download at www.quarterly.brainstorm.co.ke

Fungai Machirori is a blogger, editor, poet and researcher. She runs Zimbabwe’s first web-based platform for womenHer Zimbabweand is an advocate for using social media for consciousness-building among Zimbabweans. Connect with her on Twitter