Kenyan laws still fail to protect women against violence

Pope Francis’ message to South African bishops, “Violence against women harms society,” comes at a time when Kenyan women continue to fall prey to new laws that continue to destabilize their efforts “to stand and be equally counted.” The initial version of 2013 Kenya legislation guaranteed an equal share of assets for women, irrespective of how much each spouse contributed. This provision was later amended to read that, upon divorce, spouses share property on the basis of the contributions they make in its acquisition.

Dominant areas of discrimination can be found in laws on inheritance, and in sexual and gender-based violence. Nearly half of all Kenyan women, starting at age 15, have experienced violence, with close family members among the perpetrators. One woman is raped every 30 seconds; one in four women is beaten by her partner. Forty-six percent of women aged 15 to 49 in Kenya have experienced physical or sexual violence – or both – according to the 2008-09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey.

One woman who experienced such violence is 33-year-old Mariamu Wanjiku (not her real name). After attending the burial of her father in Naivash, which is 57 miles (92 km) north of Nairobi, she wasn’t able to return home on the same day. She opted to spend the night at the house that was once her home as a girl. When she got back to her husband the following day, he was enraged and pounced on her, biting her mercilessly.

Mariamu, having spent a sleepless night in misery, reported to Immaculate Heart Health Centre in Kereita with severe body pains. Her face and eyes were so swollen, bruised and inflamed that her 11-month-old baby hardly recognized her. The baby wailed all day and refused to suckle. Surprisingly, for the two weeks she was in hospital, the husband never paid her a visit.

On leaving the health center, Mariamu confessed she had never known that her husband would lift a hand against her and so she felt physically, psychologically and emotionally traumatized. Though she did not want to narrate her ordeal, due to the stigma that accompanies women harmed by their husbands, the black spots on her face said it all. The police eventually took the history, but as is always the case, not much help was forthcoming.

The dominance of patriarchy in Kenyan society has contributed to acceptance of gender-based and sexual violence as normal behavior. Traditionally, women in some communities even expect to be beaten by their husbands as a sign of love! The Sexual Offences Act 2006 has introduced stiffer penalties for sexual offenders in Kenya, but implementation and enforcement of the act are still not mainstreamed, despite the rise in gender-based violence and sexual violence shown in the statistics. Marital rape, which is also rampant, has not yet been criminalized as punishable by law.

The Centre for the Study of Adolescence reported in 2008 that between 10,000 and 13,000 girls dropped out of school annually due to pregnancy, which has grave implications for universal access to primary education – a key pillar in driving development. Many studies on girls and women vis-à-vis health and education have been carried out in Kenya. Conclusions have been made on the various issues afflicting and affecting them. Despite the necessity of accessing health and education services for this group of society, it is sad that, in Kenya, only a small percentage can get them easily, with the majority having to contend with mediocre services that are few and far between.

For decades, women seeking reproductive health services in Kenya have been suffering serious human rights violations, including physical and verbal abuse and detention in health facilities for inability to pay hospital fees.

As a poor woman from one of the slums in Nairobi, Jane Njeri knew that gaining admission into a maternity hospital would be difficult. Leaving was to prove much harder.

Three weeks past her due date, Njeri was referred as an emergency case to Nairobi’s Pumwani hospital, the biggest maternity facility in East Africa. She gave birth to Kamau, a healthy boy weighing 8 pounds, 5 ounces (3.9 kg).

But when she was unable to pay the £27 (U.S. $42) delivery fee, the hospital refused to discharge her. Instead, Njeri was moved to a special detention ward housing 42 other poor mothers and was allocated a bed already shared by two women with babies. She and Kamau would not be allowed to leave until she cleared her bill, which would rise daily, the nurses told her.

Although the Uhuru Kenyatta government has waived all maternity payments, unfortunately things have not changed much in practice. Shortages of funding, medical staff and equipment plague the health care system, particularly the public health institutions, by dramatically interfering with the ability of health care staff to provide adequate and quality care. These systemic problems have persisted, in part, because of a dismal lack of accountability within the health care system, which in turn stems from a lack of basic awareness about patients’ rights and the absence of transparent and effective oversight mechanisms.

Kenya’s legal system incorporates many laws concerning women, but many of them, including those in the constitution, are discriminatory and have resulted in rights’ violations, leaving women with little or no place for recourse. There have been several attempts to amend the constitution in order to revise or discard provisions that allow for discrimination against women. None have been successful.

Many women have been left destitute following the death of their husbands and fathers or after a divorce. They often succumb to threats and hostility from their in-laws and move away from their homes to live in abject poverty.

All said and done, women need to be empowered. When they are economically and socially empowered, they become a potent force for change. But change must start with the women themselves. They must fight for their own rights.

They must end negative cultural practices that often discriminate against them. These include forced marriages, preference for having male children, unequal inheritance for widows, and the tradition of female genital mutilation, practices that persist because they are not questioned. And they are rampant despite Kenya’s high levels of literacy. The elite urban women and women-led organizations must reach out to the rural poor, who are more bound by these practices, through sensitization and advocacy programs.

[Adelaide Ndilu is a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the administrator of Radio Waumini in Nairobi, Kenya.]