New policy makes it difficult for women to leave abusive unions

Principal Secretary Labour Joseph Motari, First Lady Rachael Ruto and CS Florence Bore during the launch of the  National Policy on Family Promotion and Protection policy at KICC Nairobi on May 15, 2024. [Samson Wire, Standard]

Last week, First Lady Rachel Ruto officially launched the National Policy on Family Promotion and Protection. The document is expected to operationalise Article 45 of the Constitution, which recognises the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society and the necessary basis of social order.

While the policy recognises the different types of Kenyan families, it is essential to note that discrimination exists if your family does not look like what is stipulated within the policy. It is appalling that the policy fails to recognise the realities of many types of families, like refugee families and chosen families. Family means different things to different people, but at its core, it means love and support, which is non-existent in the launched policy. Instead, the policy places a great emphasis on “protecting marriage” from divorce without addressing the genuine reasons many women seek divorce in the first place.

This is worrying especially as Kenya witnesses numerous cases of femicide and intimate partner violence. By focusing on preventing divorce and making it more difficult for women to leave life-threatening situations, one wonders what the true goal of such a policy is. The policy, which seeks to encourage and promote dispute resolution processes to keep marriages together, has complex consequences for intimate partner violence and femicide in Kenya. Imagine a person going through a challenging and violent marriage, and the State’s priority is that of the sanctity of the same union that is committing harm. What are the safety nets and protection of the people involved? Why does divorce seem like a bad outcome in such relationships that cause harm, and is the government encouraging silence within marriages and unions? The home should be the safest place for all and a sanctuary, and the State should protect each family member from all forms of violence, including family violence.

On the one hand, supporting dispute resolution procedures that prioritise maintaining marriages may be viewed as a means of addressing family disintegration and lowering divorce rates. It would indicate a desire to maintain family unity and stability, which can have a good social and economic impact, particularly on children who would benefit from growing up in intact homes. However, this method may unintentionally reinforce detrimental gender relations and power imbalances within relationships, increasing the likelihood of intimate partner violence (IPV) and femicide.

In many circumstances, women who have been abused may be bullied or coerced into remaining in abusive relationships in order to preserve the family unit. This can perpetuate a cycle of violence and reinforce gender inequality within the household. In essence, the government, through this policy, is saying that if your marriage is not working and you are experiencing violence, stay put as our work is reducing divorces. The policy thus, intentionally or unintentionally, makes it difficult for survivors to leave abusive relationships and seek help because they are afraid of social stigma, judgment, or revenge from their partners.

We need to enact policies that challenge harmful gender stereotypes and promote gender equality in partnerships and families. We need to properly and sensitively address the fundamental causes of IPV within marriages. We need a holistic approach that prioritises survivors' safety, autonomy, and empowerment, not a policy that dissuades divorces in harmful relationships. This includes giving survivors access to legal protections, shelter, counseling, and other support services the policy lacks.

Finally, while supporting dispute resolution procedures to keep marriages together may have good intentions, it is critical to recognise the possible hazards and unexpected consequences, especially for women in all their diversities who are at risk of experiencing violence in their relationships. This policy needs further interrogation to ensure its full implementation does not lead to increased violence against women, a human rights violation that non-state actors have been working to end for decades.

Ms Kimani is the director of Zamara Foundation, a feminist, women’s rights activist, sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate, and psychologist