Reflecting on research and media coverage of Kenya’s woman-to-woman marriages

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Professor Ann Stewart has been researching woman-to-woman marriages in rural Kenya to understand their role in providing social care for older women. She has shared the stories she collected in Kenya and explored the stories from court. Here, she explains how she does her work.

My team and I had no difficulty finding women in woman-to-woman marriages to interview. With funding from a Leverhulme research fellowship between October 2016 and November 2017 , I investigated the topic ‘caring for older women within Kenya’s plural legal system’.  Alongside the women, we interviewed lawyers and judges involved in woman-to-woman cases in the higher courts; rights and advocacy groups within civil society; elders and those who undertake dispute resolution within the customary law system.

We travelled to rural Kenya to meet our participants and talked to people from six different communities: Kamba, Kisii, Kipsigi, Kuria, Luo and Nandi.

partial map of Kenya including the Kamba, Kisii and Nandi community

We talked to almost 100 women, individually, with their partners or in focus groups. And we realised early on that we needed to differentiate not only between older women (i.e. the initiator of the arrangement or the “husband”) and younger women (the “wife”) when undertaking the research but also between “older younger women” i.e. those “wives” who were themselves now older and widowed and “younger younger women” i.e. those whose partners (“husbands”) were still alive. We wanted to know whether these were caring relationships, and in what ways and for whom? How do they “fit” within family and kinship-based caring for older people?

These arrangements are of course the subject of considerable debate. Early anthropological studies undertaken by men in the colonial era viewed them as practical ways of dealing with “barrenness” within kinship-based societies. It is the case that there have always been a range of practical community-based solutions to deal with the problem of infertility and these continue today.

Assistive reproductive technology (ART) has only become available recently, and is accessible only by the African urban wealthy elite.  Formal adoption is still not favoured by many Africans, and cultural identities are moulded through ancestral links.

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“We don’t want blood from outside to mix with our blood in the clan,” said a male Nandi elder. However, rising incomes, urbanization and increased availability of assistive reproductive technology are changing attitudes.

More recently, woman-to-woman marriages have been studied by sociologists and, with the rise of feminism, from a gender perspective.  In the 1970s and 1980s the focus shifted to analysis of the gender roles of the two women.

The woman “husband” was a source of considerable interest because of the adoption of the male role. Linguists were intrigued by the terminologies – how the women were named and the implications for their status.

The rise of the women’s movement internationally led to an appraisal of marriage practices across the globe and found many to be oppressive and patriarchal.  This shone a new rights-based light on the woman-to-woman arrangement.

Woman-to-woman marriages are seen by many as particularly oppressive – coercing a vulnerable younger woman into an unwanted relationship with the sole purpose of providing sons, and so perpetuating oppressive sex/gender hierarchies and potentially a form of gender-based violence.

In earlier times, the man chosen to have sexual relations with the younger woman to produce the children of the marriage (this is never the older woman’s husband) – would probably have been decided by the older woman and her community. But younger Nandi women told us this is changing and that they are now the ones to choose the man, much like they would choose a boyfriend, sometimes without their wife’s involvement or knowledge.

The man knows that he will have no responsibility for any children of the liaison, and they will not know who their father is. They are the children of the woman-to-woman marriage.  Only marriages between men and women are recognised by the 2010 Kenyan constitution and the Marriage Act 2013. Nevertheless, woman-to-woman marriage is a practice which is recognised both within the customary and the formal legal system.

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We found that few city dwellers, particularly those coming from “non-practicing” communities, were not familiar with the arrangements unless they had read about them in the press.  However, when we talked in Nairobi with university colleagues or with members of the legal profession about our research, they soon recalled examples of aunts or grandmothers who were obviously in such relationships.

When the more populist (and global north) media become involved, woman-to-woman marriage is often portrayed in a sensationalist way – as another example of a repugnant traditional cultural practice.

African legal scholars such as Sylvia Tamale and Celestine Nyamu – Musembi are very critical of what they see to be this neo-colonialist understanding of the role of ‘culture’ and African sexuality. They, like us, present a more nuanced understanding of the way in which woman-to-woman marriages are understood in contemporary contexts.

Does this sort of analysis reproduce those early (male) colonial anthropologists with their impersonal economic imperatives? Does it ignore the social and gender inequalities and potential exploitation involved in these marriage arrangements? We tried to avoid imposing judgment by focusing on the narrated experiences of women in woman-to-woman unions, and the contemporary context in which woman-to-woman marriage operates.

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The focus was on understanding the relations of care – from both women’s perspectives – and to understand how woman-to-woman marriage might fit within local practices of caring for older citizens in rural areas.  It sought to investigate the gender power relations involved rather than to presume them.  We were very interested in understanding the way in which law – both customary and formal and the interactions between the two – shaped care relationships.

Our research, it must be stressed, is not to pass judgment on woman-to-woman marriage practices or to suggest that it is a solution to the question of who is going to care for older African citizens.

It investigated the way in which caring relationships are valued within a particular legal framework and social context. But it does shed light on wider issues relating to how care is valued from a gender perspective and the contribution that law makes to shaping understanding of and means of claiming recompense for caring.

It offers an insight into how to address a key target within the Sustainable Development Goals, which set international policy making. Target four of goal five (to achieve gender equality) is “to recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate”.

Policy making on long-term care provision has to be contextually sensitive and tackle existing gender inequalities. We need more evidence of what will work informed by those who provide care as well as those who have a right to receive it.

The research team consisted of Dr David Otieno, Mount Kenya University Law School; Dr Agnes Meroka, University of Nairobi Faculty of Law; Dr Jennifer Lander, Warwick Law School (now De Montfort University) and Professor Ann Stewart, Warwick Law School.

Artwork by Beatrice Florence Taylor

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