The Bill passed through its second reading in the House Wednesday, even as controversy raged over how much say women should have on their husbands’ choice to get them co-wives [?!!!???!?!??!?!?!?!?].
Although the Bill has wide ranging provisions touching on marriage, the clause on polygamy has assumed a life of its own, with debate in the House and in the public zeroing in on the controversial clause. During debate last week, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Legal Affairs Committee Mr Samuel Chepkonga said they had considered an array of opinions before the decision to introduce the amendment that may see the controversial clause deleted when the Bill comes before the Committee of the Whole House.
Predictably, the reaction during debate was sharp and immediate, with mostly male MPs supporting the amendment, terming the consent clause “impractical and unrealistic” in the context of African culture [emphasis mine].
Kenyan women, on average, still have a staggering 4.6 children in their lifetime, down from 4.9 in 2003. One Mr. Omwenga – a public health administrator – says that part of the problem is polygyny, which at 13% is still a too-common-for-comfort practice in most of rural, poorer and more Islamized parts of Kenya. Mr. Omwenga contends that “women in polygamous marriages had a tendency to compete with one another to have more children, thereby raising the total fertility rate for each woman” adding that “the situation in such marriages is made worse if women are competing with their co-wives to balance the sex of their children.”
The 2008/09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS), the findings of which Mr. Omwenga was commenting on, projects that Kenya has a total population of 40 million. According to the survey the east African nation is on track to reduce the rather high fertility rates if the current economic trends hold. As it is, almost half of Kenyan girls have their first sexual encounter before they are 18. But wealthier and more educated women do so three years later, on average. Younger women are also less likely to be in polygamous relationships, a positive sign if Mr. Omwenga’s observation is factually sound.
Although at 40 million strong, Kenya is still far from a Malthusian disaster despite the endemic food shortages in the arid areas to the north and north east of the country (Ethiopia to the north has over 70 million). That said, the Kenyan government should do a better job of familiarizing Kenyan families with methods of family planning. If living standards are to go up, inflationary-adjusted economic growth must outstrip population growth by a big enough margin. Although in the long-term education (especially the education of girls), greater female labor force participation and the general secular decline of polygamy as more Kenyan men style up will do the trick in reducing fertility rates, the foundation for these has to be laid now. Fewer children NOW will translate into better education for them, including for the all important but oftentimes neglected Kenyan girl-child.