Kenyan women lawyers will challenge a bill passed by the male-dominated parliament on Tuesday which denies divorced women the right to matrimonial property unless they can prove they made a financial contribution.
Traditional customary laws regard property as the sole preserve of men in Kenya, and women often struggle to provide for themselves and their children after divorce or separation.
“Many women, when it comes to issues of divorce, they are always sent away without anything,” Ruth Aura, chairwoman of the Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya (FIDA), told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If you only have one matrimonial home…registered in the man’s name and the man has decided he wants nothing to do with you, he wants you to get out, where will this woman and her children go?”
In Kenya, women own one percent of land title deeds in their own names and five percent of title deeds jointly with men, according to FIDA.
Women’s rights experts had hoped the Matrimonial Property Bill would recognise spouses’ equal rights to property acquired during the marriage, “irrespective of the contribution of either of them” towards it.
But male MPs turned the bill on its head by removing a clause guaranteeing equal ownership of marital property.
Aura said her organisation would appeal to the president not to give his assent to the bill. Failing that, they will go to court.
“We intend to challenge it,” she said. “We cannot be taken 30 years back when the constitution is very clear on issues of equality.”
Kenya has one of the worst records in the region on women’s participation in politics, and female MPs won just 16 out of 290 parliamentary seats in this year’s election.
The fact that women hold a record breaking 19 percent of seats in the national assembly is due largely to the 47 positions of women’s representative introduced this year for the first time.
But women still lack the voting strength to ensure that several pending bills promoting women’s rights are passed into law.
On Tuesday, there were 34 women in parliament, and the male-backed amendment passed by 87 votes to 28.
Male legislator Asman Kamama told the House: “You don’t need someone to come here and hang around and then walk away with half of your property when they never contributed anything,” The Standard newspaper reported.
Supporters of the original bill argue that the law should recognise women’s non-financial contribution to the family’s wealth, such as taking care of children and running businesses. Women are estimated to do 87 percent of the labour on the subsistence farms that feed most rural Kenyan families.
“A woman might be unemployed, but remember she will clean her husband’s house, warm his bath water and many other things that may be considered a contribution that should enable her to get an equal share of any matrimonial property,” the Daily Nation quoted female parliamentarian Zainab Chidzuga as saying.
“The future is going to be bleak for women if the law says there is no equal distribution of property upon divorce. They are going to be rendered destitute,” said Aura. “This is why we need some kind of equity in terms of distribution of matrimonial property should there be a problem in the marriage.”