By Gatonye Gathura
If passed in its current form, the proposed Marriage Bill 2013 could significantly affect the lives of about 2.5 million spouses in polygamous unions and many others who are indirectly attached to such relationships.
Most of these, about 1.8 million, are wives living in polygamous marriages or unions compared to about 700,000 husbands in similar unions.
Assuming each of the women has about three children, then about 5.4 million siblings would also have a good reason to want to be involved in the debate.
Throw in in-laws, cousins, uncles and other relatives, including those others planning to join in polygamous marriages then you have more than half of Kenya’s 40 million people having a stake in the debate.
The Kenya Demographic Health Survey estimates that 60 per cent of women in Kenya are married and 13 per cent of these are in polygamous unions. The same document says about 50 per cent of men in the country are married with seven per cent of them in polygamous unions.
So where are these polygamous Kenyans? North Eastern has the highest proportion of women, more than a third or 36 per cent in polygamous unions. In Nairobi only two per cent of women are in a polygamous unions but this does not take into account those secretly living in similar relationships.
Western, Nyanza, Rift Valley, and Coast provinces all have proportions ranging between 15 and 23 per cent of women in polygamous relationships.
Among men, Nyanza has the highest number living in polygamous unions while the least number of males in such unions are to be found in Central Province, according to the 2009 KDHS.
Because of westernisation of the Kenyan communities and a huge population of younger educated people, one would expect a fast decline in polygamous marriages but this does not seem to be the case.
The health survey indicates only a slight decline of polygamy over the years.
“The proportion of married women reporting one or more co-wives has declined from 16 per cent in 2003 to 13 per cent in 2008, and the proportion of married men who report having more than one wife has declined from 10 per cent to seven per cent,” says the KDHS.
Who is most likely to be found in such a union? Population experts say women with little or no education and also the poorest are most likely to be in such unions. These unions are also more prevalent in rural than urban areas of the country.
In all polygamous unions, the man has remained the king but now with the Marriage Bill 2013 trying to equalise all partners in marriage, men may feel their throne is being threatened.
The proposed Bill wants polygamy recognised under Muslim or customary marriage provided that a man declares before marrying his first wife that it is a potentially polygamous union.
It also suggests that polygamy not be allowed for those taking part in a Christian or civil marriage. On adoption of such a law, any man who thinks he can eat his cake by secretly marrying other wives risks being put in jail for five years and or fined Sh300,000.
The significant important bit of the proposed law is the requirement that all polygamous marriages be registered, a move that legally protects the wives and their children in securing their rights such as inheritance and child upkeep in case of a break-up.