The Challenge of Gender-Based Violence in Kenya and the Response of the Church

by Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango

Date added: 27/02/2017

1 comments/replies so far.     Read the discussion. Join in. >>     (You need to log in first.)

 The Challenge of Gender-Based Violence in Kenya and the Response of the Church

Revd Dr Emily Onyango



Despite Kenya being about 80% Christian, Gender based violence is very rampant in Kenya. This Paper is an analysis on the challenge of Gender based violence in Kenya and the response of the Church. The paper has established that GBV is as a result of patriarchy, Understanding of masculinity and femininity, social and economic factors. African cultural practices like forced marriages, female genital mutilation and widow inheritance also lead to violation of women. The most prevalent types of violence include domestic violence, rape and incest. The paper also established that apart from the family, the work place and institutions of learning are major sites of gender based violence.

The Church in Kenya at its inception dealt with aspects of Gender based violence. The Churches did advocacy work and protested against cultural practices violating women. The Churches also created safe places for victims of gender based violence. The Churches also worked for the empowerment of women both through education and economically. However, the Church in Kenya today needs to do more in response to gender based violence. In some instances the Church has been accused of encouraging GBV through improper interpretation of scripture and wrong counselling. The Paper concluded that the Church should deal with the root causes of GBV. The Church should ensure the creation of a Biblical world view through proper interpretation of Scripture. The teaching should be done within the smallest groups of the Church. The Church should be at the fore front of advocacy work, deal with the issues of drugs and alcohol, and empower women both economically and with education.

The Paper has mainly employed the use of case studies drawn both from Newspaper reports and individual and group interviews. The names in most instances have been changed to hide the identity of the people concerned.


Despite Kenya being about 80% per cent Christian, gender based violence is very rampant. There is an average of four cases of gender based violence reported in the daily papers. However, it is clear that most cases of gender based violence are not reported. According to Alberta Wambua, the Executive Director at the Gender Violence Recovery Centre (GVRC) at Nairobi hospital, the hospital dealt with three thousand and six hundred cases of gender based Violence in the year 2015. This translates to an average of ten cases per day.

Violence refers to all acts or threats that cause physical, mental or sexual harm or suffering. It also includes indirect acts such as coercion and intimidation (UNIFEM, 2008). Gender based violence includes a variety of acts of violence committed against females because they are females, and against males because they are male. Gender based violence affects both males and females, however it affects women and girls disproportionately. Violence establishes or reinforces gender hierarchies and perpetuates gender inequalities. Gender based violence is based on women’s subordinate status in the society. It is also based on wrong understanding of masculinity. Gender based violence attacks the fundamental rights of both adults and children alike.[1]

The UN assembly in 1993, defined Gender based violence as:

Any act of violence that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats to such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private. (UN Declaration: 1993).

Violence is one of the social mechanisms by which women are forced in subordinate positions. Violence against women encompass physical, sexual and psychological violence, economic deprivation and socio-economic violence. It occurs both in the family and in the general community. This includes abuse of children, dowry related violence, rape, incest, sexual assault, Female genital mutilation, widow inheritance, forced early marriages, denial of certain foods and other traditional practices harmful to women. Violence also includes emotional-psychological violence, threats to violence, name calling, humiliation in front of others, blackmail and threat to abandonment.

Gender based violence is also related to non-spousal violence, related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and other places. It also involves economic deprivation, resulting in sex peddling transactions like sex for fish or boda boda, or motorbike ride. Economic deprivation might also be as a result of denial of women by their male spouses to engage in any kind of business. Economic deprivation mainly affects women who are housewives and not engaged in gainful employment or business. Gender based violence also includes socio-economic violence such as discriminatory access to basic health care, low levels of literacy and educational attachment, inadequate shelter and food, economic deprivation, armed conflict and acts of terror.[2] All these kinds of violence are associated with power inequalities between men and women as well as growing economic inequalities between men and women as well as growing economic inequalities both within and in all societies and across all classes. Sexual gender based violence (SGVB) is any kind of harmful act that is perpetrated against one persons will and that is based on ascribed gender differences between males and females. It includes acts that inflict sexual harm and suffering, threats of such acts, coercion and other deprivations of liberty whether occurring in public or private life.

1. Patriarchy:

Gender based violence is mainly supported by patriarchy, an ideology which Privileges men in the society and see power as a male concept resulting in male superiority. First, this is supported by African traditional cultures and ideas. The African cultural ideas are passed down through myths and stereotypes constructed by the community. In some African communities violence is the norm and an acceptable way of disciplining women. Patriarchy is further reinforced by wrong interpretation of scripture. This results in misunderstanding some of the Biblical principles like submission, headship, order of creation and authority. There are also teachings of the Church which are problematic, an example is the fact that marriage is not dissoluble under any circumstance.

One of the most prevalent kind of violence is domestic violence. A recent case reported in the Kenyan papers was that of Jackeline Mwende. Mwende is a 28 year old woman from Machakos, Kenya. Mwende had been married to Stephen Nthenge and was living in an abusive marriage. Despite their seven years of marriage, they had no child. In African societies, lack of a child in marriage is always blamed on the woman. One lady quoted her mother-in-law telling her that young unmarried girls, still in school were getting pregnant, while with several years in marriage, she could not conceive. Mwende and her husband had undergone a medical test and it was established that it was Stephen who had the problem. It seemed this had bruised the ego of Stephen and he became abusive to the extent that they had to separate for some time. In July 2016, Stephen came and knocked on Mwende’s door and told her that this was her last day to talk. Stephen hacked both her hands and even made cuts on her head.

This was not the first time there was trouble in this marriage. The parents from both sides knew this situation and always urged them to work out their differences. Chief Salome, who had been one of their counsellors had urged Mwende to make her marriage work. Many women staying in abusive marriages are always seen as the cause of the problem. Most counsellors and even clergy, always say that it is a foolish woman, who would let her marriage not work. The Church always underline the indissolubility of marriage, even in cases of abuse. Domestic violence is also supported by improper interpretation of scripture, where women are urged to submit to men. This is supported by African traditional cultures, where domination is viewed as the norm in the society. Most men therefore feel that they have the right to control their partners and spouse battering is viewed as normal. Some of the women even believe that if their spouses beat them it is a sign of love.

Monica and Joe were dating, and Monica was slapped by Joe, two months before their wedding. The two had gone out for dinner with friends and were having a great time. In the course of their discussion, Joe felt that Monica was flirting with one of his friends and that she was not very respectful to him. Joe was stonily silent on their way back home, but once they entered the house, he shut the door and walked to Monica and slapped her. Joe thundered, ‘How dare you embarrass me like that in front of my friends? Shamelessly throwing yourself to Jack, never embarrass me like that again or you will be sorry’, Joe spat on her and stormed off to bed. The two were not yet even married, but Joe felt entitled to exercise his power and beat Monica.

Violence against women in marriage is the norm and some parents do not mind, even if their daughters are being abused. Monica and Joe were engaged and were planning for their wedding. Monica was one day held up at the wedding planners place and she arrived home late. Her phone battery had also died and therefore and therefore she had not answered Joe’s phone calls. Monica arrived home to find a fuming Joe, who demanded to know where she had been, and why she had not been answering his calls. Joe beat her up and the beating landed her in hospital, with a dislocated jaw, two broken ribs and a completely shattered spirit. When Monica was in hospital, the mother and sisters cried as she told them what had happened. However, when Monica said she would not proceed with the wedding, she got no support. The mother said:

“What will people think of us if you cancel the wedding now? The bride-wealth has been paid, the invites have been sent out and all the plans are in place. These are just minor problems which couples always face, so instead of running away, you should fix the relationship and make him happy. In fact you can change him. We are Christians and wives should always respond in love.”[3]

Patriarchy is also related to sexual aggressiveness. Sexual potency of men is often associated with masculinity across various cultures. Men have been socialized to associate the state of manhood with competence in sexual matters. Many men are under social pressure to behave in a domineering a sexually aggressive way. The becoming moment of most men is defined in terms of the first sexual encounter with a woman. Unfortunately violence, rape and sexual coercion tend to characterize many relationships in Africa. Gender based violence is also based on new African patriarchies or neo-patriarchy which has been brought in the continent by forces of imperialism and colonialism.[4] There are types of violence against women, which is an invention of modernity, a new phenomenon that is a serious contradiction of values linked to respect for human life and respect for women who were seen as providers of life in Pre-colonial societies. This has led to wide spread practice of rape and incest in Kenya. These practices also go hand in hand with drug and alcohol abuse.

Rape is one of the greatest violations of women in Kenya. Rape is sexual intercourse done against a persons will, and is a pervasive form of gender based violence. Rape happens to people of all ages, educational levels and religion. Rape is an act of power, anger and dominance over another person. Rapists always see their victims as an object to dominate, or use sex as a weapon of control. During war, rape is used as an instrument of humiliation. Elizabeth Otieno was gang raped by 20 men in Mathare, Nairobi during 2007/2008 post- election violence. Her body became the battle field, raped by Kikuyu men because she was from the Luo ethnic group, who were perceived as enemies. Elizabeth got pregnant and felt devastated because this would be a life- long reminder of her violation. She could not even tell who the father of her child was. Elizabeth contemplated abortion but decided to keep the baby. Elizabeth gave birth to Brookley and even contemplated throwing the child after she gave birth to him. She has contemplated committing suicide several times because of trauma. Elizabeth sometimes takes her pain out on the child. Elizabeth also narrated the story of a nine year old girl, who was gang raped and became HIV positive and insane.[5]

In most cases rapists always go scot free as several cases are dropped due to lack of evidence and most of the cases go unreported? Matheri, was a serial rapist, who was arrested in 2012, for raping several women and killing them. He was finally released due to lack of evidence, despite him himself confessing to rape. Another case reported in the Daily Papers was a serial rapist who assaulted up to eight women in Nganganthi estate in Nyeri. The man said to be in his thirties is known to dress up as a woman. He always get the keys to the houses before his mission and therefore opens the door before raping the occupant. The sex predator mainly marks out the houses of women who live alone. Only two out of the eight women have reported the rape case. [6]

Another type of gender based violence is incest. A 40 year old man from Rongo, Migori was taken to police custody accused of defiling and trying to forcibly marry his daughters aged 14 and 11 years old. Otieno’s act had been exposed by the younger daughter, he had defiled her and her younger sister as the step mother watched. Otieno’s first two wives are deceased, the first wife was the mother of the 14 year old, while the second was the mother of the 11 year old. According to the girl, they were sleeping in their grandmother’s house, when the step mother woke them up at midnight. According to the girl, they were sleeping in the grandmother’s house, when the step mother woke them up at midnight, saying their father wanted to speak to them. When they went to the house they found their father with a Jembe (hoe).

Otieno ordered the girls plus the step mother (the third wife) to go to the bedroom and undress. According to the fourth wife, the girls were left under the constant threat of their father. The girls narrated their ordeal, of how their father got intimate with their step mother as they watched before turning on her and her sister. “He told us that he wanted me and my sister to be his wives to replace our late mothers”. The man had withdrawn the girls from the school so that he could repeatedly molest them.[7]  Another case is of Diana a 10 year old girl, who was waiting for schools to open so that she could proceed to class four. In April, 2015, the mother went to hospital to deliver and Diana was raped by the father:

We lived in a two roomed house, my father picked me from my usual place of sleeping next to my bothers. They were both sound asleep and so did not hear or see a thing. Once in my parent’s room, my father began undressing me. Just as I was about to scream he hit me on the head, as he was drunk. After he was done, he slept and I laid responsive waiting for dawn so that I could tell my brothers what happened.[8]

 The work place is also a major site for gender based violence in Kenya. This occurs in government service, non-governmental organisations and even in the business world. Women find it very difficult to get promotion at work unless they give in to sexual advances of the bosses. A female officer with the Kenya Police Service told the National Police vetting board that she was charged with insubordination and transferred for rejecting her senior’s sexual advances.Women are also vulnerable to aggression due to limited access to cash and credit facilities. Women in Nyanza region are forced to peddle sex for fish as most of them cannot raise enough money to start a viable fish business. School girls are also forced to peddle sex in order to get free Boda Boda (motor bike) rides or even bus rides to school.

The schools are also a growing site for sexual gender based violence. In Kitui, a head teacher was charged with defiling a mentally challenged child .In Pemja primary school in Nandi, 11 girls were discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock under mysterious circumstances. The headmaster, Benjamin Korir admits that he is not sure whether the pregnancy is for the teachers or the villagers.[9] .The abuse of girls in schools also include commercialization of women’s bodies related to increased poverty, contraception imposed on women or imposed abortion. A standard six pupil in Ganze was arrested for allegedly attempting to abort and detained in Shimo La Tewa Maximum prison. Her boyfriend who gave her pills to abort, when she discovered her pregnancy is at large.[10]Several school girls also die because of back street abortion every year.

Most Christians in Kenya go to the Church for counselling when they find themselves in abusive relationships. The Church is very accessible at all levels and is therefore in a position to help couples. The Church leaders also use the pulpit to teach people on relationships. However, most clergy encourage couples to stay in abusive marriages. Prof. Mombo refers to this as vumulia (Be tolerant) theology. The Church and even the parents urge the victims to be tolerant and to persevere. A case in point is that of Jane, who had been advised by both parents and the Church to stay in an abusive marriage. Jane’s husband had been beating her and had in several occasions threatened that he would kill her. The pastor advised Jane to be submissive as the husband is the head of the house. Jane was finally killed by the husband, a situation which could have been helped through wise counsel. Some of the Churches give victims of gender based violence in the Church premises.

Most of the sermons preached in Churches and during weddings reinforce the inferiority of women. The clergy mainly use African traditional cultural lenses, when interpreting scripture. Most of the sermons do not question the negative stereotypes that the society has on women. Most preachers in interpreting the Genesis story always claim that since women were created out of the rib of men it means they are inferior. Preachers also misinterpret the text on headship of the man and on submission to argue that the women can be treated like a mat. The standard sermon is that Eve sinned and therefore women were cursed to be ruled by their husbands.

2. Masculinity and Femininity

Gender based violence is also caused by Gender specific socialization and cultural definitions of appropriate sex roles. There are specific expectations of roles within a relationship. The society has specific ideas of masculinity and femininity. In most societies in Sub-Saharan Africa, hegemonic masculinities have projected men as having power over women and children.[11]  Masculinity is always associated with characteristics such as aggressiveness, dominance, strength, courage and control. Men are therefore socialized from a young age to be aggressive, domineering and in control. Most of the cultural traditions in Kenya forbids men from crying or speaking about any abuse administered on them by women as they would be seen as cowards. As a result of this many young boys are sexually abused but would never share it with anybody. Femininity on the other hand is associated with docility, weakness, gentleness, tolerance, passivity and emotions. These are inculcated in young girls from childhood. These at times lead girls to be misused and suffer in a very abusive society.

During the colonial period, the man was constructed as a bread winner in the family. Many men if they are not able to work are either frustrated by the women or alternatively have their egos hurt and therefore frustrate the woman. Peter, a 38 year old man had a very well- paying job and took very good care of his wife and his children. However, one day, when Peter reported to work, he was given a letter that he had been laid off. Peter’s wife Martha was a business lady and therefore had a steady source of income. Martha started talking down on Peter in front of the children, telling him he was good for nothing. He was constantly reminded that his fellow men were working and not depending on their wives. Peter resorted to abusing alcohol and being aggressive in the house to make a point that he was still in control.[12]

Hegemonic masculinities have projected men as having power over women and children. Men tend to be socially constructed as more powerful than women. This unequal distribution of power make polygamy and promiscuity among men acceptable. Many African communities refer to the man as a cock and therefore he will be expected to be promiscuous. The wife is often viewed as challenging the man’s authority if she tries to question the man’s promiscuity. Mary Nafula and Benjamin Wekesa got married just after leaving school. Although Mary got employment, Benjamin did not find employment immediately. Mary took all the responsibility in the house and also took loans so that they could acquire property. In order to avoid problems in the family, Mary registered the property under Benjamin’s name. In African societies, the man is the provider and therefore Mary did not want to hurt Benjamin’s ego.

Benjamin eventually got employed and Mary thought they could now work together to bring up their young family. However, Benjamin began to change, abandoned the family and kept concubines. One of the women he was living with was a married woman with three children. Mary was disturbed but was urged by Benjamin’s family to be tolerant because it was the nature of men to have several wives. They urged to refocus and rebuild her life so that she could take care of her children. The experience of Benjamin and Nafula are very common in Kenya. A similar case was being discussed in a vernacular radio station, Ramogi FM. Everlyne had also married Maurice an unemployed graduate and worked hard to acquire property. Maurice later got employed in the county government. He abandoned the family and squandered the wealth. Maurice started beating Everlyne and also spending the nights outside the home. However, most of the listeners calling on the show, saw no problem with the behaviour of Maurice. Most of them even concluded that the lady must been very proud since she was the sole income earner. Most people always blame the victim for the violence.

Promiscuity has also led spouses to met violence on or even kill their partners. In September, 2013, Faith Wairimu plotted to kill the husband. Despite working very hard and sacrificing, so that the family could have a good standard of life, Faith realized that the husband had been taken over by a lover and neglected the family. Faith was driven up the wall and came to the end of her wits. She felt that the only way to make the man pay for his deeds was murder. Faith therefore planned to kill the husband because of infidelity. A common practice in Kenya today is women chopping off the genitalia of their husbands. Fatuma waited for the husband in bed and when the husband was erect and started demanding for sex he chopped off his genitals. Fatuma argued that the man was both irresponsible, not bringing food at home and also unfaithful. In most cases women who have chopped off the genitals of their husbands always claim that they are irresponsible, unfaithful and drunkards.

The main challenge of the Church in Kenya is to teach transformed masculinities. The Church should deconstruct the hegemonic masculinities and construct masculinities that develop healthy relationships and the well-being of the society. This is possible because there are several masculinities as there are different ways of being a man in Africa. Versions of manhood are defined by tribal and ethnic group practices, western influences and even global trends as projected by the media. The masculinities or behaviours are not natural and unchanging. Christians can therefore adopt a new version of manhood, shaped by the Bible. Men are capable of being born again and become partners of women in the struggle and agents of change.[13]

3. Socio-Economic Factors

Economic factor is a major cause of gender based violence in Kenya. Most women are economically disadvantaged and are therefore more vulnerable to violence. The women are economically dependent on their husbands and have no property rights. This kind of power relations lead to economic exploitation. Women are unable to leave abusive marriages because they need the financial support of their husbands.[14] A case is that of Elizabeth, who was being abused emotionally, psychologically and physically by the husband and as a result of that she had lost her self-esteem. Elizabeth was also a victim of physical violence and was admitted to hospital with broken ribs. However, Elizabeth could not leave the marriage because she had depended on the man financially. She could also not leave the children because they could be violated. Elizabeth had therefore to stay in the abusive marriage. Several women stay in abusive marriages because they are economically dependent on men.

Economic factors also lead girls and women to participate in cultural practices which violate women. Most girls have to undergo female genital mutilation because without this, they cannot be married. The girls need to be married because otherwise they do not have any property rights. Margret, a female cutter argues that it is cutting of the girls during FGM which gives her her livelihood. According to Margret:

 ‘The female cutter or Koko Mekong earns 2500 shillings or about 25 dollars for each girl circumcised. If we leave doing this thing what will we eat. Tell the government to give us what to eat. If it is just workshops, then it will be of no use. The circumciser will not leave her career, simply because they are being told to leave it.’[15]

Economic factors also lead to the practice of widow inheritance. In most communities women do not have property rights. The widows would therefore be forced to be inherited by the husband’s relatives so as to have a source of livelihood. Among some of the communities, for example the Luo, sex is central to economic activities, especially agriculture. According to Nyandiko Ongidi, the chair of the South Nyanza council of elders, the man and woman of the house must have sex before planting, weeding and harvesting season. So if a widow has to continue farming, which is mandatory for survival, she has no choice but to get a man to inherit her.

Widows also have to be inherited because they are not allowed to perform any tasks before they have a man. According to Nereah Abongo, A 65 year old widow, a widow is not allowed to do any ordinary work until such a time that she is inherited. Nereah says that when she needed to build a house because it was raining on her and her children, elders told her to get a man to get a man because traditionally a house is not considered complete without ‘Osuri’, the pointed stick on top of the hut, which must be placed by a man. The women are also not allowed to go to the fiver to fetch water, or to the market or even to visit others because she will defile those places. The widow has therefore to literally depend on others for her livelihood before she is inherited. Lorna, who was a school teacher said that some of the parents did not want their children to be taught by her as she was unclean.

The widow’s property in many cases is taken by the relatives after the death of their spouses. Mary Akinyi’s house was ransacked by her husband’s relatives immediately after the death of her husband. They took the title deeds for the land and the log book for the car. They distributed the household goods like the TV set, the fridge, furniture and even the husband’s clothes among themselves. The relatives did not care that Mary had children and she needed the property. Most widows lament that instead of relatives offering a shoulder to cry on, while they are still vulnerable, they instead target the property. Bertha Gaitho was the wife of the head of the African Independent Pentecostal Church, Archbishop Samson Gaitho. Bertha Gaitho in her 50’s got married to the prelate after the first union ended in divorce. Samson and Bertha raised all the children together, including the ones from the first union. However, things changed in 2011, when the Archbishop died. The larger family got embroiled in court cases over property, and the relatives stormed her house. Bertha hoped that the Church would intervene or even stand with her but they were not keen. Bertha maintains that the Church should take care of widows.

In some instances widows within the Churches organize themselves into groups to support each other and for economic empowerment. Mrs. Odera one of the widows in the Anglican Church points out that they have formed a widow’s support group for Christian widows. The older widows support the younger ones, they discuss the challenges of widowhood in the face of retrogressive cultural traditions. They encourage the widows to be courageous and go against traditions that disempower them economically. They make home visits every Friday and lend money to their members through table banking. All the money collected is left for the owner of the house mainly to start up and strengthen their income generating projects or to pay fees.

4. Culture:

Cultural ideologies and aspects of religious and cultural traditions provide legitimacy for, and also sanction violence. African traditional attitudes towards women, specifically sanction violence. An example of this is the practice of forced marriages, female genital mutilation and widow inheritance. Mr. David Njogu, Transmara’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) officer reported that at least 20 cases of defilement and forced marriages are reported monthly at Kilgoris police station. According to Njogu, the majority of the cases go unreported.

Mr. Njogu maintained that Masaai culture has to be blamed for this vice. Young girls are forcefully married off to older men. In most cases the girl would become the third or the fourth wife. This is done mainly in exchange for cattle. Cattle are a source of wealth to the parents and they are ready to marry out their daughters at a tender age in a bid to fight poverty. Most of the cases reported are prosecuted in the court of law. However, some of the cases collapse, since members of the community shield suspects from justice by hiding them. In other instances the victims are convinced to settle the cases out of court.[16]

Female Genital mutilation is still widely practiced by some communities in Kenya, despite the government enacting a law against it. Female Genital Mutilation is defined by WHO as:

All procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.[17]

FGM is a kind of gender based violence and has been recognized as a violation of human rights. FGM is condemned by the Churches and outlawed by the Kenyan government. However, FGM is still widely practiced in communities like Somalis in North Eastern, Abagusii, and Maasai and is also widely practiced among the Meru. The head of the United Nations Population Fund, described FGM as child abuse. Dr. Osotimehin said that there is no reason to cut anybody, and described it as part of gender imbalance that has always existed in communities based on patriarchy.

There are different types of FGM practiced in Kenya. The Abagusii, Meru and Embu, mainly practice clitoridectomy, i.e. partial or total removal of the clitoris and or prepuce. Somalis and a part of the Maasai practice involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and at times also involves excision. It also involves closing of the vulva or infibulation. Margret, a grandmother in her 70’s describes her work:

‘When I started the tool of choice was a curved nail, more recently it has been replaced by imported razor blades. Young girls typically sit naked on a rock. Once done the excised clitorises would be thrown to the birds.’

Wasike describes the process that a cutter uses a razor, a pair of scissors or a knife, tools that are rarely disinfected. The victim is given nothing to deaden the excruciating pain as her labia and clitoris are removed. The cutter then sews up the wound and what remains is a hole to pass urine and menstrual blood. The place has to be cut again before the wedding. The women therefore live with a life- long physical and mental pain.[18]

Most of the girls undergo FGM because it is a rite of passage and gives young people identity in the society. Agnes Kainnet underlines the importance of the ceremony as it elevates a girl from childhood to the status of womanhood. Masaai girls are considered ready for marriage only after circumcision. In most cases this ceremony is sponsored by their prospective suitors. According to Agnes, women who are considered as children and cannot be happy. A 14 year old circumcised girl has more authority than a 60 year old uncircumcised woman. Police arrested four married women in Kajiado who had undergone FGM. They claimed they were not happy because they had previously not undergone the cut.

The Maasai also believe that circumcision protects their daughters from poverty. As one village put it:

We are pleading with the government to allow us to engage in our traditional practices. It is a very big problem for our girls because if they just sit at home without being circumcised they will not get husbands and will also not get any education.[19]

Unfortunately, FGM leads to early marriages as the girls have to be married immediately after circumcision. The Maasai also believe that an uncircumcised woman will bring death to the family. Naserian, a 59 year old woman argues that the government should allow them to continue with FGM, because if the girls are not circumcised, both their parents would die. According to Loiyan a resident of Kajiado, circumcision of girls is important as it reduces infidelity. Those girls who are not circumcised have the habit of going from one man to another.

Female genital mutilation has very negative consequences on the girls. There are instances of excessive bleeding, which in many instances lead to death. The cut is also done under unhygienic conditions using shared and unsterilized objects. This easily leads to contracting HIV/Aids and tetanus. It also results in several health issues for girls, e.g. the damage of organs, including the vaginal wall. Long term effects include chronic infections of the reproductive organs, pain during intercourse and difficulties at childbirth. It exposes girls to serious health complications and it is always done against her will.

Another aspect of Gender based violence caused by cultural practices is widow inheritance. According to the Luo tradition, the wife belongs to the community and so if the husband dies, she has to be inherited by one of the husband’s relatives. First, this is to have a man to replace the husband in order to curb promiscuity and bad omen brought by widowhood. Second, due to the centrality of sex in economic activities, especially agriculture, a widow needs a man. Most the women bow to cultural pressure because they fear the consequences.

The rituals which accompany widow inheritance are very dehumanizing for women. Generally, before a widow can be inherited, widow cleansing has to take place. Widow cleansing is done to exorcise the dead husband’s spirit. According toLuo Ker (traditional leader), before a woman is officially inherited, she has to spend a night with the corpse before she is freed to marry another man. He argues that sleeping together does not necessarily have to be intercourse parse, one just has to lay next to the corpse and dream of making love to him, which symbolizes permission. However, if the dream does not take place, elders have to sweet talk the corpse, begging it to set free the widow.

Women who refuse to be cleansed get chased away and cursed by the elders. Parents- in law contribute towards widow cleansing with some of them using threats and intimidation to force the widow to be inherited or to leave their compound. Amondi was told to pick a man of her choice to inherit her, as not doing so would lead to uncleanliness. Amondi refused because of her Christian faith and thereafter lived under a lot of pressure.

Widow cleansing and widow inheritance is one of the major factors which fuel HIV/Aids in Nyanza. Widow cleansers are reckless, they sleep with widows who have lost their husbands even to HIV/Aids without condoms and also expect to sleep with other widows Mary Anyango Otieno had been inherited three times by the age of 28 years. Mary’s husband died in 1990 and the community wanted her to fulfil the husband’s dream of having ten children. Mary was inherited immediately after the husband’s death, but the man died a year later due to HIV related complications. She has been inherited twice after the first man, this is even after making her HIV status known. Ms. Otieno is her current husband’s second wife. The husband has however inherited several widows after her and does not have protected sex. Mary is with the 7th child and hopes to be inherited again if the current husband dies.

Most of the widows continue to be inherited because they rely on the men to save them from poverty. However, the reality is that the men who inherit the widows actually are the main beneficiaries of this arrangement. First, most of the inheritors will not eat vegetables but demand that the widows cook for them meat, a delicacy which the widow cannot normally afford. Secondly, most of the inheritors cheat the widows out of property especially the land. There is a growing trend where the inheritors kill the widows and take all the property. Many widow are also accused of killing their husbands and are chased away from their husbands’ homes and all their property taken. Most of such widows end up in situations of depression.

The church in Kenya from the time of the missionaries condemned the negative cultural practices. Archdeacon Owen and Olive Owen maintained that their major call was to liberate African women from oppressive cultural practices like forced marriages and polygamy. The missionaries generally did advocacy work and highlighted the plight of African women who were being violated in the name of culture. The missions also offered refuge for women in the mission station and even gave them work to do. An example was Esta Lala, a widow who had to leave home because she was not ready to undergo the cultural rituals. Esta went to Ng’iya mission station and was given work at the girls’ boarding school. Esta was among the first group of women to establish the women’s movement. The African women themselves fought for their rights. Most of the women got education and were also economically empowered.

The missions empowered the women to fight against practices which violated them like female circumcision. The women in Nyeri formed the ‘Shield of the young girl’, which later developed into the women’s guild. Their main agenda was to promote the education of girls and challenge forced marriages and female circumcision. In December 1931, they addressed the Local Native Council in Nyeri and maintained that Female circumcision should be abolished. They argued that it was men who were vocal in support of female circumcision, yet they don’t feel the pain. Secondly, they maintained that girls were being forced into circumcision and were caught like sheep. They maintained that the girls should be allowed to have control over their bodies. However despite the foundation created by the missionaries the Church today needs to do more so as to challenge the negative cultural practices, which continue to violate the girls.

Conclusion: The Response of the Church to Gender Based Violence

The Church in Kenya has responded to Gender Based Violence in several ways. First, the Churches and especially the missions were the first organizations to do advocacy work. The missionary societies created awareness and challenged cultural practices which violated women like forced marriages, polygamy, widow inheritance and female circumcision. The missions created safe spaces where those who felt violated could run to. The girls who ran to the mission stations were given education and some were given employment. However, after independence the Churches in Kenya have not been very keen on either advocacy work or creating safe spaces for those who have undergone violence. The Church in Kenya need to be more vocal on the plight of those who are being violated and respond to the root cause of the problem. The Churches must address the world-view of the people, which is greatly informed by patriarchy and African traditions. The Church should support and also sponsor bills which empower women.

Most Churches in Kenya have structures, which deal with issues of gender equity and gender roles. Most of the Churches have both women’s organisations and Men’s organisation, like in the Anglican Church, there is mothers union and the Kenya Anglican Men Association. The Presbyterian Church has the women’s guild and the father’s association. Most of the women’s organisations at the time of their inception tried to fight for the empowerment of women to some extent. However, today some of their teachings disempower women instead of empowering them. Most of them do not address issues of gender equity and are also caught up in interpretation of scripture mainly from patriarchal lenses influenced by African culture. The Church and organisations of the church are not also addressing themselves to the situation of the male child, which is a pertinent issue. The Men’s organizations in Churches mainly focus on economic empowerment. The men’s organizations are good springboards for discussing issues of gender equity. They could discuss transformative masculinities to empower men to be better Christian fathers. This can also be a spring board for mentoring young boys.

Many Churches in Kenya have adopted an alternative rite of passage to discourage female genital mutilation. This is always referred to as circumcision by mouth. Through this process, the Church gives young people life skills, which help them to transition to adulthood. The young people are given sex education and they even talk about future careers. The initiation process take almost a year and then they board for about two weeks before having a graduation ceremony. Some Churches have attempted to empower people economically through development projects. This is important because, if women are empowered, then they do not have to stick to abusive marriages. The Church however needs to be instrumental in encouraging women to take leadership positions so that they contribute to changes in the society.

The Church through the Clergy is one of the major groups which offer Pastoral care and counselling services to all levels of people in the society. This is because the professional services are not accessible to most people within the society. Most Church leaders are accessible and trusted by members of the community. However, a major hurdle, is that most of the Church leaders are not well trained in counselling. The Churches have therefore at times done more damage due to lack of proper skills. The world view of most of the clergy is also influenced greatly by patriarchy and African cultures.

However, above all the greatest task of the church is to do proper interpretation of scripture and use all platforms available to teach on Biblical gender equality. Gender based violence is mainly the result of gender inequality and some of the gender roles imposed by the society. Gender inequality and gender roles are social constructs based on the different cultures and worldviews of the society. Religion plays a major role in constructing a worldview. Misinterpretation of the Bible and also looking at the bible through both patriarchal and African cultural lenses reinforce gender inequality. The Church must therefore use all the platforms available to deconstruct the negative world view and come up with a more biblical world view.

First the Church has to do away with the myth that inferiority of women is based on scripture. Most of the preachers teach that inferiority of women is scriptural. However, the truth is that both men and women are created equal in the sight of God. They were given equal level of authority by God over creation and they lived in a state of intimacy with God and with each other.[20]  Inferiority of women is therefore not God’s design for creation but as a result of the fall. However, God has provided a saviour to liberate humanity from sin of domination and exploitation.

Second, most of the preachers misinterpret Ephesians 5:22, which is a very popular text for sermons during weddings. Most clergy also used the misinterpreted version of the text to counsel couples on marriage. Most of the preachers do not read the text from 5:21, which underlines that the couple should submit to one another in love. The preachers also ignore v.25-33, which talks of the obligation of the man to his wife. The focus is always on Ephesians 5:22 and the focus always imply that the woman should not have any say in the family. The text is twisted to mean that the husband is the boss, and he has to obey him in everything. Marriage is portrayed as a hierarchy with the man on throne and can treat the wife in whatever way he wants. The role of the wife is to submit and not to annoy the man. The Church must clarify that submission is not of domination over the other or ruler ship over another. Submission is something, which a person imposes on himself or herself. It means somebody chooses to submit out of free will. Christ also teaches that whoever wants to be a leader must be a servant. Christ told the husbands that the way to love their wives is by giving up their rights as Christ did to the Church.

Most preachers have also used the word head, to imply that the husband has authority to control the wife. They justify oppression of women arguing that this is biblical. However, the words were used to liberate women in the context of oppression by the fathers in the Roman Empire. The first century women in the Roman Empire. It was customary for the woman’s father to continue to claim ownership of his daughter even when she was married. This was a way to ensure that the dowry continues to remain under the control of the father even after she moves to the husband’s home. As long as the woman was brought three times to the home of the father the father would claim control over her and her property. This created havoc in the families. Therefore the words the man is the head of the woman meant contrary to the father having the authority it was the husband who had authority. Hence, the woman would not continue to submit to the husband as expected by culture. When Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church he is not trying to endorse a top down hierarchy nor is he trying to say who is in charge. The main purpose is to explain the mystical union between the man and his wife, which compares to communion between Christ and the Church.[21]

Finally the Church has to deal with other causes of Gender based violence. First the Church must deal with alcohol and drug abuse which is very rampant. The Church should establish rehabilitation centres which rehabilitate both alcohol and drug addicts. Second, the Church must respond to poverty which is one of the main facilitators of gender based violence and also continue with empowerment of women both economically and through education.


[1] Milly Odongo (ed.) “ Gender Based Violence in Kenya”, (FIDA Report 2010),8

[2] Veronica Kahindi Kaluyu, “Causes, Consequences and Management of Gender Based Domestic Violence: A Case of Central Division of Kitui District, Kenya” (Med Thesis, Egerton University, 2007), 10

[3] Monica, Interview, May 17, 2016

[4] Ezra Chitando, Contexual Bible Study Manual on Transformative Masculinity (Harare: EHAIA,2012),34

[5] Elizabeth Otieno, Interview in KTN , Jeff Koinange Live, Thursday, 23rd June 2016 at 10 pm, ‘Overcoming Hate’

[6] Otieno Nicholas, “5 Die as Rapists Targets Women Who Live Alone”, Daily Nation, July 5, 2016

[7] “ Horror of the Tale of a Man who Defiles Daughters”, Sunday Standard, June, 12, 2016

[8] Mary Achieng, Interview,  August 12 2016.

[9] “11 Girls between 12-17 Years in School fall Pregnant”, Sunday Standard, June 26, 2016

[10] “A Pupil Held for Abortion bid Charged in Court”, Daily Nation, July 2, 2016 p.9

[11] Ezra Chitando and Sophie Chirongoma (ed.), Redemptive Masculinities: Men, HIV and Religion( Geneva: WCC publication, 2012),6

[12] John Maina, Interview, July 13, 2016

[13][13] Ezra Chitando, Contexual Bible Study Maual on Transformative Masculinity (Harare: EHAIA,2012),5

[14] J. Hammer and Marynards eds., Violence and Economic Control l(Hongkhong: Macmillan, 1987)

[15] “Female Circumciser Says Female Circumcision is her Livelihood”, February 7 2014

[16] Ruth Mbila, “Police Raise Alarm Over Child Rape Cases”, Daily Nation, July 12, 2016, 24

[17] “FGM Lets End It”, Report from 28 Too Many”

[18] Andrew Wasike, “The Challenge of Eradicating FGM Among Kenya’s Masaai” Unpublished Paper

[19] Wasike, “The Challenge of Eradicating FGM Among Kenya’s Masaai

[20] J. Lee Grady, Ten Lies The Church Tells Women (Florida: Charisma house, 2006),33-34

[21] Lee Grady, Ten Lies The Church Tells Women, 189

Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango

Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango



The Rev Leon Spencer (23/03/2017 at 21:40)
Diocese of North Carolina
I commend Dr. Onyango for a very thoughtful article. Her focus is contemporary, but she also indicates an awareness of an history of church engagement in gender issues. While somewhat presumptuous on my part, I will point to my article of some years ago, 'Defence and Protection of Converts: Kenya Missions and the Inheritance of Christian Widows, 1912-1931,' Journal of Religion in Africa, 5,2 (1973), 107-127. Here was an effort to define 'majority age' for women to permit them to assume rights to make decisions for themselves, mainly via a 1930s Marriage Act. There were varied motives for this mission-led effort, but it does remind us of a long history of seeking to address gender justice.
Interweavings: Graham's Blog