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Jedidah Wanjiku, 29: 'They need to say that women have feelings, that a bully in the house is not good and women are the same as men.' (Sally Armstrong/Sally Armstrong for The Globe and Mail)
Jedidah Wanjiku, 29: 'They need to say that women have feelings, that a bully in the house is not good and women are the same as men.' (Sally Armstrong/Sally Armstrong for The Globe and Mail)

Marital rape in Africa: The right to say no Add to ...

"I own her. The dowry I paid for her means she's my property."

For most of our conversation, 40-year-old Linus Kariuki seemed like a soft-spoken man, a town councillor in the village of Kanjuu, 90 minutes northeast of Nairobi. But when he talked about the controversial proposal to make marital rape a crime in Kenya, he became loud and agitated.

The reform, he insisted, was not in keeping with African tradition.

If my wife refuses to have sex with me, I will rape her. And then I'll beat her because she didn't obey me. Linus Kariuki

Mr. Kariuki's fury was fuelled by a week-long meeting then being held in Nairobi, where human-rights lawyers from Canada, Kenya, Malawi and Ghana were in a hotel room putting the finishing touches on a plan to alter the status of African women.

Making marital rape a crime is just the start, and there is bound to be a ferocious backlash. Yet even the men in Kanjuu admitted the law would likely pass once it came to the legislature. In Kenya, that may be as early as August. (In Ghana and Malawi, it may take two more years.)

Reforming the way an entire continent treats half of its population became the aim of Fiona Sampson, director of the African and Canadian Women's Human Rights Project (ACWHRP), after she met several African women lawyers at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 2002. But it was her personal sense of urgency that made the concept take flight.

"I am the last thalidomide child to be born in Canada," she explained, referring to the anti-morning-sickness drug whose side effects in utero affected her hands and arms before it was banned in Canada in 1962. "There was a culture of impunity in the testing of drugs at that time. So I'm consumed with injustice in the face of impunity."

The African women she met wondered if they could adapt the model that was used in the early 1980s to reform Canada's laws around sexual assault. Eight years later, this winter, they gathered in Nairobi with a group of other high-profile lawyers for the launch of Three to Be Free, a program to operate in three countries (Kenya, Malawi and Ghana), using three strategies (litigation, policy reform and legal education) over three years. The group has been able to get funding from the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Canadian Department of Justice, the International Development Research Council and the law firm Fasken Martineau. (My trip to Nairobi was also underwritten by Fasken Martineau, after I was invited to speak as a reporter on equality in developing countries at the Canadian launch of ACWHRP in December.)

In the past three decades, unlike in many other countries, the rights of women in Africa have hardly budged when it comes to marriage, divorce and property rights. African women, the litigators said, are treated as chattels and vulnerable to ghastly violence - being beaten or mutilated and denied food and shelter for any manner of infraction.

"They have become the face of HIV/AIDS," said Winifred Kamau, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi Law School, "as women have no right to say no to sex. Family violence hasn't been curbed even a little, and marital rape is legal." This makes it state-sanctioned violence, Ms. Sampson said - a form of social enforcement for married women.


In Kanjuu, six women gathered in the home of Jedidah Wanjiku to escape the sun and discuss the new law out of public view. Everyone here had heard about it on the radio, but most men pretended it wasn't happening.

"Women need to have the right to say no," said Ms. Wanjiku, 29, "but men here have the authority and women have no power at all."

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