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Witness: What They Gave Up To Leave a Marriage

Women and Matrimonial Property Rights in Kenya

© 2020 Ojima Abalaka for Human Rights Watch

Women in Kenya still face insurmountable difficulty when trying to claim matrimonial property after divorce. Here are some of their stories. 

Issa B: When her abusive husband left her, she was ordered to return her dowry

My husband turned on me early in our marriage. He would beat me, squeeze my throat, burn me with firewood from the kitchen, threaten to kill me, threaten to divorce me. I tried to get his parents to intervene, but they would not believe me. In 2018, after a particularly bad beating, I ran away with my son and reported the abuse to an assistant who works at the Kadhi court; my face was badly bruised and swollen. I went to live with my parents.

When Issa's abusive husband left her for another woman, she was ordered to return her dowry. © Private

My husband took another wife and told the Kadhi I had abandoned our marriage, that I dressed immodestly, and didn’t pray. I was summoned to the Kadhi’s Court. I told the Kadhi about my husband’s violence, his threats, and his new wife. My husband admitted to being violent. He apologised to the Kadhi (not to me) and requested that I’d be ordered to return to the marriage. I refused.

The Kadhi ordered me to return my dowry of KSh 50,000 [US $466] and 2 cows to my husband and his family. I refused. I am single-handedly raising my son. The Kadhi denied my request that my husband return my clothes, personal belongings, identification documents, and school certificates.

My husband obtained a warrant for my arrest because I had failed to make any payment. I was arrested with my son, spent a night in jail. The Kadhi said I would be detained until I paid back the dowry.

I got a loan of KSh 30,000 [US $280] from a friend.

With help from the women’s rights group FIDA [ Federation of Women Lawyers in Kenya], I got a new ID card and my husband returned most of my school certificates. We also managed to get a stay of execution of the Kadhi’s payment and detention orders, and appealed his decision at the High Court.

Meanwhile, I am still not receiving any financial support for our son from my ex-husband. I know it’s unlikely that I’ll get any property, but I would really like it if he would contribute toward our son’s upkeep.

Beltha M: When her husband kicked her out, she lost everything.

We met when I was barely 18. I had just lost my job as a domestic worker. He offered me a place to stay, I got pregnant, and we decided to get married in 2005. We were together for about 14 years and had 3 children. During the marriage, we bought a piece of land in Nairobi and built six semi-permanent housing units. We had dairy cows and were saving to buy a tractor.

When her husband kicked her out, Beltha lost everything. © Private

My husband cheated a lot during our marriage, and he would beat me sometimes. About two years ago, he started living with another woman in a house he rented in Nairobi, I confronted him about this, he beat me and kicked me out of the house. I was pregnant with twins. I had to leave our three children and anything that I couldn’t carry. I lost my home and all the property we had acquired together.

I moved in with my grandmother. The twins are my sole responsibility with no help from him. Our three older children have since moved in with me. He won’t pay their school fees now.

I filed a case with the county’s Department of Children Services, but he refused to go when summoned. So I took him to court. Last year, he refused a court order to allow the children and I to return to the house and to financially support the children. He says there is nowhere for us to stay on the property and he has no money to build another house for us. My husband has all our property and I have nothing. I want a share of the property we acquired. We registered the plots in my husband’s name. I don’t even know where the property is. My children and I have no option but to live here with my grandmother, who cannot afford to support any of us.

Prudence N: "After two years of the court order I still don’t have my land, I’m still homeless."

We got married in 1971 when I was 16. It was a customary marriage, by family and village elders, not in a courthouse. In 1978, we pooled our income and bought land. His money came from selling land he inherited from his father, and I had been saving money from growing and selling sugarcane.

Prudence's husband left her, then sold their home without her consent. © Private

We built a house and made it our home, until he left me for another woman. I made my peace with the breakdown of our marriage and continued to raise our 4 children here. Years passed and our children have since grown up and moved out, except one who still lives here with me.

In 2007, he sold our home without my consent. I found out about the sale when he brought people to evict me. They wouldn’t let me leave with anything. I had to leave immediately. They pulled down the house and set it on fire.

I decided to fight back with some help. In 2012, I took him to court to demand that the court cancel the sale and order him to replace our home. The case lasted six long years. The court finally nullified the sale in 2018.

However, when I tried to enforce the court order at the Lands Registry, they said that they can’t find the records for the land. Every time I ask them to search again, I am given a new requirement to fulfill. Bring this document, bring that document. I need a lawyer who can help me because the registry officials refuse to take me seriously. Even after two years of the court order I still don’t have my land, I’m still homeless.

Aissatou F: "All I want is my house so that my children and I have somewhere to call home," 

When we got married in 2000, I made a lot more money working for the national wildlife service than my husband did working as a diver at a local hotel.

I got him a job at the wildlife service. He was later transferred to a different town, after which I first learned about his infidelity. Our marriage began to fall apart, we would argue, and he would get violent. Once, he threatened to kill me with his work pistol.

"All I want is my house so that my children and I have somewhere to call home," said Aissatou.  © Private

During the first years of our marriage, I bore most of the financial responsibilities. I paid for food, clothing, and school fees for the children. I took a loan and upgraded his 2-bedroom mud-house into a six-bedroom brick house. He also got a loan to add another 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a toilet. We dug a well and bought a pump, selling water from the well.

We purchased additional property and built three shops on it. Finally, he took out another loan to build a house, and I took a loan of KSh 1.5 million [US $13,977] to finish the interior. I thought it was going to be my home.

One day in 2018, I invited a religious leader from my mosque to pray for me and our home. My husband and his brother accused me of bringing a witch doctor to curse them. My husband got violent and threw a table at me, breaking my arm. He chased me out of the house, took all my cash, and emptied my mobile money account.

I am now homeless. I lost access to income from the property we had developed. And I must pay back the KES 1.5 million loan. Another woman has since moved into my home. All I want is my house so that my children and I have somewhere to call home.

Emmaline B: Struggling to Divorce an Abusive Husband

I was about 20 years old when we met. In 1992, we got married and I moved into his family’s home on family land where his whole family lived. He had not developed his section of the property, there was nothing on it when we moved.

He lost his job shortly after we married. He started drinking. I had to support our family. I got a job at a local school. We used my salary and built a three-bedroom brick house. I paid for our four children’s school costs and other needs.

He became more violent. He used a machete to break things, doors, windows, chairs, anything in his path. There was never peace.

The neighbors knew the marriage was a disaster. People at church, people at school knew.

I left him in 2015 and started divorce proceedings in 2017, which lasted two more years. My family was extremely supportive. He and his family, on the other hand, were shocked.

He did not think I would go through with it, so he never bothered to respond to the petition or attend court. It was only when he received the final divorce decree, which I sent through the chief, that he realized I was serious.

He says he will appeal the decision. He threatens me and tries to intimidate me at my job by showing up regularly. He tries to get me fired.

I won’t demand property in the divorce. The land is registered to his great grandfather. I don’t want to go through dividing and transferring the land to my ex-husband just so I can have my share. I have children with him; they will inherit the houses. I just want peace.

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