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18 December 1998

No more sleeping with the enemy

Masai husbands regarded wife-beating as an age-old tradition and inalienable right - until Agnes came along. Njeri Rugene and Beatrice Newbery report.

By Njeri Rugene

he Masai are not labelled Kenya’s most conservative tribe for nothing. Their daily lives have hardly changed for centuries: the men graze their goats and cattle on the dry, dusty plains of the vast Rift Valley, first as young warriors, then as elders; women bedeck themselves with glass beads to show their wealth and congregate around their traditional mud huts, or manyattas; young life is a series of ceremonies, from circumcision to initiation into adulthood and finally marriage. Yet today, one of the Masai’s most ancient customs is under threat. Thanks to Agnes Siyiankoi, Masai men will have to think twice before beating their wives.

Agnes had a typical Masai marriage. In exchange for three cows, her father sold her to Moita Risa Ole Kiranto, a devoted Christian and chairman of a local church. She was barely a teenager. Apart from the birth of their four children, their 13-year relationship was characterised by the regular beatings which he dealt out when she was not quick enough to meet his needs. “I had grown to dread my husband, more than the lions and hyenas that roam in our neighbourhood at night. I feared he would kill me then live to persecute my children,” she says. But Agnes was different from other Masai wives. She was educated. And, when Ole Kiranto dealt her a four-hour beating which left her unconscious and with permanent pain in her hip and shoulder, she took him to court – and won.

It was an unusual sight. The courtroom walls were lined with the machetes and metal-studded clubs used by Masai warriors not only to ward off animals but to beat errant wives. Inside, the room was filled to capacity with journalists, lawyers and the Masai elders clad in their shukas, or traditional red linen wraps. They had come to hear the outcome of the year-long process in which Agnes had been called upon to give evidence in a room full of hostile men. As the Masai members listened to the 48-minute verdict, their faces revealed nothing but horror and disgust. The senior magistrate, Charles Gitonga, announced the immortal words: “A husband has no right to beat his wife.”

Agnes’s actions were without precedent. Victims are reluctant to come forward because they rely on their husbands for economic support and are scared of stigmatisation and poverty. Already Agnes’s younger sisters have been bullied at college. Meanwhile, Ole Kiranto ensured that Agnes lost her teaching job near her marital home in Ilmukutani, Kajiado. She is struggling to care for her four children in a rented one-roomed house in Kajiado town. But though her father offered to return the cows in order to solve the dispute quietly, Agnes was determined. “I am doing this for posterity,” she says. “The marriage is now history. I consider myself a widow and will live like one.”

The young Masai woman has even filed a constitutional case in the High Court seeking to outlaw wife-beating in her tribe for good. For while the constitution states that no person shall be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment, domestic violence is allowed under Kenya’s customary law. In trying to prove that wife-beating is unconstitutional, Agnes has brought African traditions on to a collision course with modern law. As Millie Odhiambo, a lawyer with the International Federation of Women Lawyers explains: “This case is unique in setting a constitutional reference in Kenya.”

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Not surprisingly, the episode has sent shock waves through the community. Agnes’s lawyer, Tobiko Keriako, himself a Masai, explains: “Wife-beating is a measure of male authority and prestige in the community. Once the bride price and dowry have been paid, the men automatically own the women and can do whatever they like.”

He admits the constitutional suit against the Masai community has left even the most educated members puzzled. Many call this a domestic dispute which should have been sorted out at home, not in public. Tobiko even recalls one judge asking him: “How are we going to control our wives after this?”

Masai women are also stunned by Agnes’s behaviour, since most see a beating from their husbands as a sign of affection. In fact, Agnes’s co-wife, who sat in court to lend moral support to their husband, never went to the rescue when Agnes was beaten. She was green with envy, sharing a traditional belief that husbands beat the wives they love most. As Tobiko explains: “Wives have reconciled themselves to the tradition. It is common to hear battered women bragging about how tough their husbands are from the number of beatings they get.” Even Martha Tobiko, Agnes’s mother, has little sympathy. “Beating was never discussed in our community. But we were beaten with metal studded clubs, not fists and kicks like my daughter. A woman was expected to endure it all for the good of her family,” she observes.

Wife-battery and domestic violence are common in Kenya. Police statistics show that on average ten women are battered every day by their spouses. Last year 3,674 cases were recorded, which included marital rape to humiliate and oppress women. As Agnes’s former teacher and a member of parliament, David Ole Sankori, explains: “We treat wives as our juniors. In fact, we equate them with children who must be corrected by beating. We say, ‘if you spare the rod, you spoil the wife’.”

Though reported cases reveal the vice as widespread among lower-class groups, that is mainly because upper-class women are more economically independent and can get out of a hostile relationship to live alone. The reality is that wife-battering is not confined to one social class. Educated men are equally in favour. Samuel Hiaji is a 45-year-old journalist. He says: “A woman must be disciplined, especially if she has a habit of shouting at her husband. No man really enjoys beating his wife, but women will always be beaten by husbands if they don’t tame their tongues.”

Joe Kagia, a Nairobi schoolteacher, is educated enough to quote the Bible on this issue: “It is clearly written that God cursed the woman, saying: ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in child-bearing. In pain you shall bring forth children yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.’ You see, ruling involves punishing, when the subject [the wife] goes wrong.”

Lady Justice Effie Owuor, the head of a task force reviewing laws relating to women, says: “Violence against women starts at home, where husbands batter and humiliate their wives in front of their children. The boys’ behaviour cannot be different after witnessing such violence inflicted on their mothers.”

With judges, journalists and teachers among the proponents of wife-beating, it comes as no surprise that Ole Kiranto’s sentence was lenient – a fine of 5,000 shillings (£50) or six months in jail by default. He paid the fine promptly and walked out of court a free man. While such leniency was immediately attributed to the influence of customary law on judgments made in Kenyan courts, others see the sentence as symptomatic of a legal system dominated by male magistrates and skewed gender values. A recent report from the International Federation of Women Lawyers draws up two court verdicts to illustrate the point. The report says a magistrate sentenced a 70-year-old man to hang for armed robbery. On the same day, the same magistrate reduced a murder charge to manslaughter in a domestic violence case.

Other hopes have also been dashed by the sentence. “It should have been a judgment that would discourage others from doing it,” says Judy Koigi, head of litigation at women lawyers’ federation. “Although the judgment recognises wife-beating as an assault, a 5,000-shilling fine for someone who is quite well off trivialises the case.” One Nairobi judge, Justice Emmanuel O’Kubasu, has urged caution in criminalising domestic violence: “What is the purpose of jailing one partner when they have to go back to the same union? This leads to the break-up and disruption of the family unit.”

But while the sentence itself might not deter Kenya’s wife-batterers, Agnes’s case has kick-started a valuable discussion involving everyone from human rights groups to the government. It has also encouraged other battered women to leave their husbands. The Coalition on Violence Against Women provides refuge at a secret location and says the number of professional women in their early thirties currently knocking on the door has filled the house to bursting point.

The legal system itself has also come under scrutiny, with ground-breaking reforms in the pipeline. The judiciary has announced plans to set up family courts to deal with domestic violence. The women lawyers’ federation’s chairperson, Nancy Baraza, is pushing for specific laws to be enacted on the minimum and maximum sentences to offenders, to ensure that victims feel justice has been done. Other women’s organisations are lobbying to be included in the Kenya Constitutional Review Process to ensure laws protecting women are included in a new constitution. Kenya’s attorney-general, Amos Wako, says the authorities have now completed a training manual for the police on aspects of human rights in their jobs. And the women lawyers are carrying out training to sensitise police officers on gender issues and women’s rights.

Agnes is proud to have inspired such debate. “My joy is that this case has been an eye-opener and a saviour to many women in my situation.” But Agnes’s lawyer feels strongly that the issues must not be dropped now that they are under discussion. While Agnes continues on her way to the High Court, he is among the many Kenyan individuals and groups who continue to lobby for change. He states quite plainly what is accepted in more developed countries: “Wife-beating as a practice is repugnant to justice and morality and should not be allowed to thrive as a tradition.”