Kenyan church leaders have become embroiled in an argument about a draft marriage law because of a clause on polygamy. But civil rights activists say that the bill could end a range of abuses and that church practice should not be imposed on the whole of society.
Fredrick Nzwili of ENI writes: Church leaders in Kenya say they reject a draft law due to be debated in parliament that would authorise polygamous marriages, outlaw compulsory dowries and recognise cohabitation.
"The law will confuse citizens. It will cause chaos in families," Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi told Ecumenical News International on 6 May 2009. "It should be rejected."
Nzimbi warned against creating doubts about Christian marriage, where one man is married to one woman. "We should follow the biblical teachings. It is the orderly way."
The draft marriage law prohibits compulsory dowries, a key principle in African marriage. It also recognises cohabitation as equivalent to marriage for heterosexual couples who have lived together for at least two years.
The measures also seek to eliminate child marriages by setting the age of marriage at 18 years for both men and women and states that it is no longer necessary to prove adultery or cruelty for divorce.
The draft law would also allow either party to declare, at the time of marriage, whether the union is intended as monogamous or polygamous.
"Where the intended husband is already married, he will have to indicate the names of the existing wife or wives," the Daily Nation newspaper quoted Judy Thongori, a former chairperson of the Kenya Law Reform Commission, as saying.
Christian and civil marriages performed under the current Marriage Act prohibit either party from remarrying without dissolving the first marriage.
"As Christians, we do not permit polygamy. Neither is it the solution for relationships outside marriage," said the Rev David Gathanju, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa on 6 May.
"When we allow polygamy, we go back hundreds of years," [claimed] the Rev Calistus Nyagilo, the Nairobi Roman Catholic Archdiocese administrative secretary.
The minimum age for marriage used to be 14. In 1999, it was raised to 18 by then president Daniel arap Moi but the presidential decree was never enshrined in legislation.
Activists behind the draft law describe Kenya's current marriage laws as obsolete and unable to meet the needs of a changed society.
Lawyer Nancy Barasa was quoted in the Daily Nation newspaper as saying, "The idea is, and these are the views of Kenyans, that should one party in a marriage be rendered, say, terminally ill, we do not condemn their partner to a life of permanent solitude. Such a person should have a way out."
Kenya's Marriage Act was enacted in 1902, the African Christian Marriage and Divorce Act in 1931 and the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1941. These were all during the time that the East African nation was under British rule.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]