Anxiety as reality on registration of marriages sinks

A Christian couple exchanges marriage vows in church wedding as Attorney General Githu Muigai makes it mandatory to those in customary or Hindu marriages to register their unions by August 1, 2017
Picture by Robert Nyagah
A Christian couple exchanges marriage vows in church wedding as Attorney General Githu Muigai makes it mandatory to those in customary or Hindu marriages to register their unions by August 1, 2017 Picture by Robert Nyagah

In hushed tones, members of Gatondo Women Self Help Group in Embu County are just settling for their weekly meeting under a tree at a local church. They are engaged in a heated debate about whether or not the government should allow chiefs to have a say in the registration of customary marriages.

“Chiefs are sometimes unfair to women. Do you think they will really treat us fairly when our men decide to secretly register illegal unions,” asks Joyce Kanini.

“I am worried over this new law which gives the chiefs a say inregistration of customary marriages,” interjects Jane Wawira who wonders whether it will not be abused especially when it comes to notifications done in writing.

A retired teacher in the group whose marriage was solemnized in a church wedding recently Mrs. Lydia Njiru enters the discussion declaring her joy that her husband now remains barred from registering any other marriage because in the Christian union it is “Till death do us part”.

With some understanding of the emerging marriage laws, the former teacher who is perhaps better placed than ordinary rural women suggests that their chairlady should organize to invite a lawyer to enlighten the group and others on the new laws.

Registration

That chiefs will have a say in the registration of customary marriages is sensitive to Kenyans especially in the rural areas where past historical provincial administration dictatorial traits remain.

Chiefs are many times viewed with mistrust by the rural folk especially women. Local opinion leader and social  worker Mr. Niko Njeru notes that despite many changes in the rules guiding how chiefs should serve the community, the old feeling where chiefs acted in dictatorial ways remained an impediment in ensuring new rules and laws
are embraced.

As discussions on the role of chiefs in registering marriages deepen, the acting registrar of marriages recently clarified that despite the enactment of laws allowing polygamous marriages in Kenya, those already united under monogamous systems are legally barred from contracting any other marriage.

Kenyans, the registrar Mary Mutaru clarifies should realize that customary marriages were potentially polygamous hence anybody already married under Christian, Hindu, civil law cannot enter any other marriage.

Professor Githu Muigai, the Attorney  General published a   gazette notice on June 9. 2017 which informed Kenyans that following the commencement of the marriage Act rules, 2017- covering customary marriage, those engaged under customary should register their marriage from August 1. 2017.

Criteria
According to the registrar, chiefs will append their signatures in unions that were not formalized in church or lack a legal wedding document under offices of the Attorney General.

While in the past the only legal documents required to prove marriage outside the religious and AG office weddings was an affidavit signed under a certified office, the gazette notice means  in future only certificates will be applicable and available confirmation of unions.

Respected family lawyer and advocate of the high court of Kenya Judy Thongori says that before the new rules, those married under customary laws required an affidavit to pursue some rights.

The lawyer clarified that affidavits did not have the same weight in various offices as certificates and in many instances they would be rejected. Hence she welcomes the fact that such marriages will now be covered under a strong legal document.

Thongori says that sooner than later, an affidavit of marital status will cease to have even the limited force it has been having.

Legal fee
Though there is a fee of Ksh. 3,900, the legal process has to be followed even by those marrying under the customary laws with candidates notifying the registrar’s office of completion of required cultural rites.

A 14 day notice will be published to allow anybody wishing to oppose the union. “Somebody may be saying that he was married to a woman and that they had undertaken all the cultural rites, but it turns out that they were actually married in church or in the AG Chamber. That is what we seek to curb” explains Ms Mutaru.

According one of the  various reports published following the enactment of the new laws, the registrar says “If a man is married to four wives for instance, it means 12 certificates  will be issued to him, four for each of the spouse and four shall be retained by the registration office.”

Position
Chiefs will mainly come to prove a man has more wives.

“Kenyans  should understand that customary marriages are potentially polygamous and anybody married under a monogamous system of marriage cannot contract any other marriages”.

Counties outside Nairobi will however have to wait because this is a pilot phase covering Nairobi.
However by March 2018, the same shall be replicated in other parts of the country.