What you need to know:
- Marriage, though it’s the basic unit of society, is often a very cruel institution to women.
- Senior public figures, including ODM’s Raila Odinga, have spoken up against intimate-partner killings.
Those of us who’ve been married in the Christian Church have uttered the words “till death do us part”. More on this later. Suffice it to note there appears to be an epidemic of murder and wanton killing of one spouse, or lover, by another. I say “appears” because there aren’t reliable statistics in Kenya on these macabre slaughters. In the past, partner-killings have only been the concern of civil society organisations like the Kenya Human Rights Commission, or Fida, the women’s rights group. Now senior public figures, including ODM’s Raila Odinga, have spoken up against intimate-partner killings. What is going on? Let me take you into the mind of the killer and our culpable society.
Most intimate-partner killings take place among spouses. Usually, domestic violence boils over, and in a nanosecond, a life is snuffed out. As a general rule, the male partner is the perpetrator. Even so, there have been several high profile murders of males by their female partners. Some men have gone as far as forming male-only groups to “save” boys and men from women. I laughed when I first heard of the idea. Imagine White Americans creating a Whites-only group to “save” them from African-Americans. That’s the text-book definition of a White supremacist hate group. Similarly, Kenyan “male-only” groups are nothing but patriarchal cabals of misogyny. Shame on them. Such men lack the cojones – balls – to be real men.
Let’s go biblical. Christian marriage vows generally run something like this. “I, Makau Mutua, take you, Athena Harris, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Before the “woke” generation, the bride’s vow included the words “and to obey.” Meaning the bride [wife] pledged, like the husband’s “chattel” [property], to obey him. No such obligation was placed on the groom [husband]. The pastor would then command the “man” to kiss his “wife.” The man, not the husband, would kiss his wife. The word “wife” makes the woman a toy, a plaything for the man.
Hatred for women
These deep-seated notions of misogyny and hatred for women were imported into Africa by Christianity. A cardinal theme of the Bible – and the Quran – is misogyny, or patriarchy and hatred for the female gender. Most African societies practised varying degrees of misogyny and so it wasn’t a large normative leap for them to embrace the patriarchal teachings of the Bible and the Quran. This relationship of “ownership” between the genders where the female is inferior, or subordinate, and the male is superior, or an overlord, is akin to the relationship between the enslaved and the enslaver – all in the name of “love”. Marriage, though it’s the basic unit of society, is often a very cruel institution to women.
Patriarchy is visible all around us. Women are paid 50 per cent of what a man earns. Men own most of the land in Kenya and the overwhelming wealth in GDP and per capita. There’s more. Most of the work that women do [in the home, child care, and farming] is unpaid labour. There are more men than women in the public and private sectors. Women are a minuscule percentage in higher echelons of the corporate world. More boys and men have access to education than girls and women. Men overwhelmingly dominate the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary in spite of the two-thirds constitutional edict, which the state has flatly refused to implement. It’s Kenya’s state policy to subjugate and marginalise women.
Men and boys rule the roost. If you doubt me, visit any average Kenyan household. Boys will be playing outside, or on their electronic gadgets and the girls will be in the kitchen with their moms and other women slaving to cook and clean. The men will be sitting in the living room, or the yard, drinking and eating. Shamelessly. The women and girls serve them. When the women and girls forget to keep the glasses of booze full, the men snap their fingers and they come scurrying to find out what the “master gender” wants. Often, I have seen men abusively fondle the domestic workers and other women serving them. This is reality, not fiction, for women.
Economic, political, and social powerlessness by women is the basis of domestic violence, marital rape, and often murder, or severe beatings. After all, the men “own” their wives and can treat them as property. It doesn’t matter what the woman wants. When women kill their spouses, or lovers, it’s often because they’ve had enough abuse and cruelty inflicted on them. It’s an act of desperation, or self-defence, or diminished control because of the violence visited on them by “their” men. I suggest that Kenya takes a serious look at the problem of the subjugation of women by men — in all sectors — because that’s the Petri dish in which femicide is incubated.
Makau Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor at Buffalo Law School. He’s chair of KHRC. @makaumutua