The Marriage Bill was always going to be contentious. For all of the noble intentions of gender equality underpinning our Constitution, we live in a very unequal world, and polygamy — the most glaring manifestation of unrelenting patriarchy was not going to be tamed without push-back.
That push-back came in the form of male MPs roundly throwing out the proposed consultation clause requiring husbands to seek permission from their current spouse(s) before marrying another one.
Reports that women MPs walked out of Parliament to register their protest over this clawing back of what was meant to be their moment of empowerment are absolutely disappointing. Not because the women lost and gave up, but because they never really tried.
Unless the media had conspired to give their build-up and lobbying activities a blackout, it appears the women MPs approached their work on the Marriage Bill with a total lack of strategy.
As if they did not know they are outnumbered in the House and as if public understanding of the provisions of this Bill was a foregone conclusion.
In 2006, when the then Nominated MP Njoki Ndungu moved the Sexual Offences Bill, she succeeded not because her Bill was drafted in flawless legalese but because she knew how to garner support from her parliamentary colleagues — male and female — long before the Bill landed on the floor of the House for discussion.
This time round, who led the women MPs in publicly articulating the issues in this proposed Marriage Bill? How much public debate was generated over it?
How many press op-eds and broadcast interviews did our women’s representatives, their caucuses and other stakeholders dedicate to this cause? Which male MP did our women’s representatives adopt as the mascot to lead their cause in the House and in public?
What bridges did the women’s representatives build with institutions that could contribute knowledgeably — not in opaque legalese — to the substance of this Bill so that it serves the purpose of women’s emancipation with clarity?
Strategies of this kind would have put productive pressure on male MPs who invariably face significant majorities of female voters in their respective constituents.
If our women’s representatives had engaged with this issue purposefully from the get-go, they would have had counter-proposals.
As the seasoned media consultant Grace Githaiga repeatedly states, “effective engagement only happens when you are part of a process, when you remain in the room building alliances along the way, proposing alternatives at the drafting stage”.
What counter proposals did our women MPs have and where were they proffered?
In the scheme of things, the clause on seeking permission would, in any case, have been an impossible consent for a husband to obtain from his first wife.
It was impractical and laws should never be drafted in such a way as to “achieve” a vain or redundant result. A better way would have been to call for notices of an impending addition to a marriage to be served on the current spouse and her children.
Such notification should be formal and personally served on not just the wife, but also on each child because a new wife changes, or at worst upsets, the balance in a home. Formal notices of this kind can be served in a manner akin to the service of court summonses.
Ultimately, it was utterly foolhardy for the women MP’s to walk out. They were not in parliament to serve their individual tempers, they were there to represent the needs of others with superior acumen and deft emotional intelligence.
As it is, their walk out was cowardly, as if they were more concerned about shielding the sketchy status in decidedly grey unions that some amongst their number are engaged in.
Alas, isn't that one of the ironies of the gendered inequalities we live with? That for every woman who deserves or insists on being a sole wife, there is another who would only be too happy to be wife number 2, 3, 4 etc.
Which begs the question: if women want men to pay them the courtesy of notifying them when they are about to take on a new spouse, shouldn’t the said new addition — in the interest of fairness to those of her fellow gender — be similarly required to notify the woman whose home she is about to join? This is, after all, the age of equality.
What’s good for the gander must be just as good for the goose!
Dr Nyairo is a Cultural Analyst