HOPKINTON, New Hampshire — At first glance, the connection between marriage and poverty in Kenya is not explicit, resulting from centuries of societal pressures and standards. Currently, 4.1 million Kenyan women live in impoverished conditions. Although Kenya’s Constitution of 2010 outlaws gender-based discrimination, women and girls continue to fight for equality and equity in marital relations.
Marriage in Kenya
Kenyan marriages follow traditional patriarchal roles and many people view marriage as a societal rite of passage. While parents often have influence over the marriage, in recent years, the presence of social media in society has given young people more freedom to communicate with partners online.
It is common for men to provide a dowry, a payment usually in the form of money or livestock, to the future bride’s family. With 23% of Kenyan girls marrying before the age of 18 in 2016, human rights advocates view dowries as a violation of women’s and children’s rights as it encourages impoverished families to marry off young daughters to raise monetary funds in desperate situations.
The Connection Between Marriage and Poverty in Kenya
As drought, locust and famine add economic pressures to already struggling Kenyan families, many have no other economic option than to marry off their daughters to accept doweries. The United Nations Population Fund has concluded that “globally, dowry practices are exacerbated in times of crisis and displacement, such as drought, and contribute to higher prevalence of child marriage.” When parents pull their daughters from school, their daughters lose the opportunity to learn life-changing skills that will allow them to rise out of poverty. After marriage, families expect girls and women to promptly begin having children, keeping them boxed within the traditional gender roles.
While decreasing in popularity, polygamous marriage provides another connection between marriage and poverty in Kenya. Many polygamous men cannot financially sustain multiple marriages, pushing some women and children deeper into poverty. Teresa Omondi-Adeitan, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya, told Reuters that “polygamy is the biggest contributor to poverty as most men who get into it cannot afford it — and it is the women and children who suffer most.” While monogamous households note a poverty rate of about 27%, households headed by a polygamous man note a poverty rate of 43%.
Female dependence on men leaves many married, divorced and widowed women without the tools or skills necessary to flourish outside of marriage. Such reliance discourages women from seeking a divorce out of fear of economic insecurity or the lack of knowledge about the judicial system.
The Divorce Process and its Effect on Women
Kenya’s divorce process is complex and has historically favored men. Kenya has a fault-based divorce process, meaning that “persons seeking to divorce must prove a matrimonial offence on the part of the other partner or spouse.” Christian, civil, customary, Hindu and Islamic law marriages all have different requirements for dissolving a marriage, including but not limited to adultery, cruelty and converting to another religion.
Before 2013, no laws were in place to distribute wealth and property equally between a divorced husband and wife. As husbands usually take care of all the property and financial assets, it is common for wives to not have their name on deeds, making it very hard to claim property rights in divorce cases. In fact, the Nation, a news outlet in Nairobi, wrote in May 2021, that “[o]nly 1% of women in Kenya have land registered solely in their names.” Without a legal claim, women lose their homes, land, money and often children, while the husband acquires everything. Until the female land ownership rate increases, the interconnected reality of marriage and poverty in Kenya cannot change.
The 2013 Matrimonial Property Act and the Mary Wambui Case
The 2013 Matrimonial Property Act is groundbreaking for women’s rights as it legally establishes that men and women have the same marital property rights. The act ensures equal opportunity to assets for both parties based on their “contribution” to the marriage, with “contribution” including domestic work, childcare and farming, roles that women in Kenya traditionally fill.
However, this law does have significant legal limitations as it does not clearly state how to prove a contribution and leaves whether to accept non-monetary contributions as proof up to the judge’s discretion. Without a uniform system of proving contributions, equal protections for women will suffer from patriarchal biases around household work.
Divorce commonality has begun to change in Kenya. For instance, in the Marsabit and Isiolo counties of Kenya, officials report divorce rates rising 30% since 2019. This trend is likely to continue following the historic divorce settlement case of Mary Wambui. Despite the passage of the Matrimonial Property Act into law nearly a decade ago, Wambui’s court victory in December 2021 was the first time the high court implemented the law. It took courts eight years to implement this law as the Act’s ambiguities perpetuate societal patriarchal norms and gender discrimination. Wambui’s award of “half of the marital home” following her 13-year marriage is a landmark decision, offering hope to many Kenyan housewives.
For many women, one cannot view marriage and poverty in Kenya separately from one another. However, the implementation of the 2013 Matrimonial Property Act offers women the realistic option of filing for a divorce without the risk of ending up in poverty. Women’s rights advocates are successfully empowering Kenyan women as every small victory works toward overcoming barriers to women’s advancement in Kenya.
– Hannah Eliason