Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Kenya

Africa, Make Up Your Mind: Kenya Expels Girls for “Lesbianism,” Permits Same Gender Marriage Between Older Women

Kenya’s views on same-gender relationships involving women present quite the dichotomy. 

Just last week, I stumbled across this video report from NTV Kenya about the suspension of twelve secondary school students due to allegations of “lesbianism.” The girls were sent home by the principal upon receiving information of their “abnormal” behavior from the rest of the student body.

According to a statement made by the principal, Dorcas Kavuku, “these particular girls were not behaving according to the school rules. They practiced lavish touching and kissed each other which is not normal for people of the same gender,” and so she’d sent them home pending further investigation. A similar story was reported last year involving over fifty girls being questioned for “lesbianism and devil worship.”

Is expulsion on the grounds of homophobia “lesbianism” becoming a more popular trend? One would certainly hope not. Given the number of societal challenges that already bar young girls from receiving basic education in Kenya (e.g. early marriage, pregnancy, harassment by male teachers, etc.),  a country in which girls drop out at a higher rate than boys, denying young girls the right to remain in school hardly makes any sense, even with Kenya’s views on homosexuality.

Incidentally, as convinced as the principal is that same gender relationships between girls are wrong, Kenya’s constitution doesn’t necessarily reflect this sentiment. Sections 162 to 165 of the Kenyan Penal Code criminalize homosexual behaviour and attempted homosexual behaviour between men, not women, a loophole Kenya’s Prime Minister Odinga disregarded in 2010 when he called for lesbians to be arrested along with men to protect the “cleanliness” of the country. Still, lesbian relations are not currently prohibited in the law, which makes sense given Kenya’s long-standing tradition of permitting women to get married in the absence of a male partner.

According to a BBC news report published yesterday:

Homosexual acts may be outlawed in Kenya but there is a long tradition among some communities of women marrying each other.

This is hard to fathom in a country where religious leaders condemn gay unions as “un-African” – and those who dare to declare their partnerships openly often receive a hostile public reaction.

But these cases involving women are not regarded in the same light.

If a woman has never had any children, she takes on what is regarded as the male role in a marriage, providing a home for the younger woman, who is then encouraged to take a male sexual partner from her partner’s clan to become pregnant.

Her offspring will be regarded as the fruit of the marriage.

“I married according to our age-old tradition, where if a woman was not lucky enough to have her own children, she got another woman to honour her with children,” says 67-year-old Juliana Soi.

This customary same-gender marriage arrangement – practised among Kenya’s Kalenjin (encompassing the Nandi, Kipsigis, and Keiyo), Kuria and Akamba communities – has come under the legal spotlight recently because of an inheritance case currently before the courts; some relatives are fighting to inherit a large house which would, by law, pass to the spouse of the late wife.

As the report gleans, if the court rules in favor of the same-gender spouse, it would challenge the patriarchal approach to family relationships, and give woman-to-woman marriages a stronger footing in the modern world. And modern is the key word, since traditional same-sex marriages have been a historical part of Africa’s culture — in over 30 different populations, including the Yoruba, Ibo, Nuer, Lovedu, Zulu, and Sotho — long before colonialism imported homophobia.

In this light, the dichotomy of Kenya’s views towards same-gender relationships involving women isn’t so confusing; it represents Africa’s struggle to find a balance between preserving the old and embracing the new.