Single women in Nairobi took to the streets on January 24, 2004 to protest against what they termed as violation of their rights. Led by the city mayor, Joe Aketch, and Forum for Single Women’s Rights (FSWR) coordinator, Alice Ndegwa, the women demanded that their rights be recognised and respected. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
Due to socialisation, women in Kenya are brought up on the notion that they must eventually get married, and have children to be ‘complete.’ Any one who deviates from this expectation is viewed with suspicion. FSWR feels this view denies the woman the right to free choice and self-determination. Socio-cultural changes may have taken place in recent years, but single mothers are still viewed with suspicion in this largely conservative East African nation of 34 million people. Single mothers no longer want to be treated like outcasts by their families, society and men who want to have a ‘nice time’ with them at their expense. FSWR is expected to sensitise the largely hypocritical Kenyan society to the rights of single women. Mayor Akech suggests that single women be honoured with what he terms ‘a Single Women’s Day’ out of recognition for their contribution to the development of Kenya.
Speaking in the company of the women who had demonstrated in the Kenyan capital city against what they termed “the refusal by the society to accept us because we have no spouses” during the official launch of their organisation, Akech said, “Without the unwavering effort of single women like Esther Passaris of Adopt-A-Light whose actions will forever remain in the heart of the City Council, the status of the city would have been reduced from ‘B’ to ‘C’ by the United Nations .” His reference reminded Kenyans of Esther Muthoni Passaris, the woman who had in late 2003 thrown her pride and dignity to the wind by bringing bedroom secrets to an open court; she has sued her alleged former lover for Sh20 million (about US$250,000) for allegedly forcing her to live a lie for more than seven years between 1992 and 2000, all along making her believe they were husband and wife.
In her suit-which is still in court-Passaris claims that Pius Mbugua Ngugi had not only deceived her into having three children with him but had also backtracked on a promise to marry her. While Passaris says she had cohabited with Ngugi at Spring Valley in Nairobi since 1992, the latter denies promising to divorce his wife and marry her. Ngugi is alleged to have misrepresented himself in 1993 to Passaris that he was divorced from his traditionally wedded wife. Passaris claims Ngugi took her for a leisure trip to France’s Monaco in August 1995 and repeatedly told her he was going to marry her and that he had been divorced for a decade. Ngugi allegedly made Passaris believe he had a vasectomy operation and induced her to stop using birth control pills resulting in the conception and birth of three children.
The women say that cases like Passaris and Ngugi’s are the ones making them to demand their rights from society.
Speaking on Mandhari ya wiki current affairs programme on Kenya Television Network on February 1, Ndegwa said that some families regard single women as a disgrace for having deviated from the ‘norm’ that dictates that a ‘normal’ woman should be married and join her husband away from her place of birth. Those not married are seen as a nuisance, people who will trouble their parents to care for their children besides competing for family inheritance with their male siblings. Single mothers are humiliated when their children ask them, “Who is my father?” and when such children are denied national identity cards, passports and visas as officials issuing these documents demand names of their fathers as a prerequisite to preparing the documents.
It is not uncommon for an unaccompanied woman to be turned away by some hotels on suspicion that they are prostitutes looking for clients. Ndegwa argues that major Western embassies in Nairobi are notorious for turning away single female visa seekers on the assumption that their aim for going abroad is to look for Western men as an easy way to acquiring citizenship of the countries they are going to. But perhaps what disturbs FSWR even more is the fact that all official government documents “seem” to purport that the ideal family has a father and a mother. Single women are not catered for in these documents. When seeking services like admission in schools or trying to acquire identity cards and passports, no provision is made for single women.
Ndegwa suggests that the provision for the father be made optional; that documents require the signature of just one parent who could be either male or female. At the Press launch of her association, Ndegwa referred to single women as “a section of the population that has had their rights trampled upon by the society for a long time. ” Saying FSWR was being formed to fight for the rights of single women in Kenya, Ndegwa suggested that lobbying, public awareness and sensitization about the rights of single women be conducted in Kenya urgently with a view to pushing for single women-friendly policies. Ndegwa, who was accompanied to the KTN studio by Rachel Kamweru, her assistant, said the Mothers Union of her church has only accorded her ‘associate’ and not ‘full’ membership due to her single motherhood status. She says she got her daughter, Jane Wanjiku, from a ‘come-we-stay’ relationship.
In some cases, some churches even decline to baptise children of single women. During events like weddings, single women are not allowed to act as maids of honour. Ndegwa told ArtMatters.Info that her Anglican Church of Kenya not only oppresses but also treats single women as ‘half human’. But why remain in such a church? “Because I am serving God,” she says. Cautioned that the church could excommunicate her for speaking against it, Ndegwa simply says, “I am ready for anything. It could help to sensitise society on the rights of single women.” Besides being instrumental in the founding of St Elizabeth ACK Church in Kahawa, Nairobi, Ndegwa is also an active member of the All Saints Cathedral in the city centre.
She says it is rare for women to get the ‘right man’ for marriage in Kenya. According to her, the right man should be “economically independent, hard working, loving, caring, and sensitive to the needs and rights of the woman.” Kamweru, in response to numerous questions from callers who faulted the women for propagating ideals they termed ‘repugnant to African values, norms and culture’, told Mandhari ya wiki: “Our group is meant to lobby for the rights of single women. We are not discouraging women against marriage. Even we ourselves would like to marry. We are asking for policies that are sensitive to single women. ” Cultures in Africa do not usually discriminate against widows but do not look favourably at single motherhood. Could this be the reason Ndegwa and Kamweru opted to use ‘single women’ instead of ‘single mothers’ which would have been more appropriate? FSWR, most callers in to Mandhari ya wiki said, should explain to Kenyans why its members would want to have children if they don’t want men in their lives. The women say they want textbooks to stop portraying the ‘complete’ family as one that constitutes a father and a mother as such a portrayal adversely affects their children’s performance in school.
They further want official fill-in documents changed from “Father and Mother” to “Father or Mother” because, they say, some of them are unmarried by choice, and would rather have children through donated sperm than directly from a man. In an interview with ArtMatters.Info, Ndegwa denies having said that children could be born through donation of sperms as reported by Sunday Nation. Ndegwa argues that Kenyan men “are notorious for playing around with women” as most women are not aware of their rights. A female caller to the show supported her sentiments on men who eat and wipe their mouths referring to the incident in which President Emilio Stanley Mwai Kibaki had denied being married to his second wife, Mary Wambui, following her profile in Sunday Standard. The caller said Kibaki, being the leader of the nation, epitomised the bad behaviour of Kenyan men.
Although Kibaki married Wambui traditionally and everyone in their rural Nyeri home knows the couple as husband and wife, Kibaki denounced Wambui three weeks after her interview with Sunday Standard had been published. The family of Wambui reacted with anger and outrage, describing Kibaki’s claim that he had only one wife, Lucy Muthoni, as callous and irresponsible. This disturbing behaviour of the President was taken as being representative of Kenyan men who use and dump women. Ndegwa admits it will not be easy to change society overnight but that her organisation will lobby for favourable policies for single women without relenting
“We shall focus on institutions like churches, diplomatic missions, political parties, social places, and government agencies in our attempt to see that favourable policies are made,” she says. Saying FSWR is targeting to register at least a million members, Ndegwa says her group will counsel women before admitting them. “We shall present a memorandum to the Constitutional Review Commission of Kenya for inclusion in the constitution. We are not fighting any one but simply insisting on our rights as single women. We are ready to work with all people of good will. We are in no way urging any one against marriage,” she says. In a non-related incident on the day Ndegwa and Kamweru spoke on KTN, Local Government minister Emmanuel Karisa Maitha challenged men with more than one woman in their lives to declare all of them as, he claimed, the law in Kenya now recognises that a man can have up to four wives.
Writing in Sunday Nation, Mwende Mwinzi, assistant vice-president with New York-based Nomura Corporate Research and Asset Management Inc, challenges “Kenyan men guilty of neglect need to re-evaluate their behaviour in the context of its impact on their children and mothers.” Ndegwa calls for “single-women-friendly” policies, which confirm that single women’s rights are human rights.
Saying she is neither regretting, apologising nor seeking sympathy over her single motherhood status, Ndegwa cites Matthew 19: 10-12 and I Corinthians 7: 32-34 to support the rights of single women.