Spotlight on harmful traditional practices and customs in Kenya

24 Nov


By Wanjala Wafula

This article documents and analyses the manner in which harmful traditional and cultural practices contribute to the persistent gender inequality and the rampant violence against women and girls in Kenya and explores ways and means of reversing the trend. I make this submission fully aware that culture, customs and traditions are never static in any society and that they are transformed by many influences and value systems. The modification of tradition by social and regulatory forces demonstrates that custom, culture and tradition are capable of both negative and positive transformation1

Traditional cultural practices reflect values and beliefs held by members of a community for periods often spanning generations. Every social grouping in the world has specific traditional cultural practices and beliefs, some of which are beneficial to all members, while others are harmful to a specific group, such as women and girls.2

The socializing processes observed for boys and girls are designed and rigorously applied to instill a feeling of superiority to boys while girls are groomed to accept subjugation and inferiority with apathy. This established patriarchal system has long endured the passage of time cutting across geographical boundaries as well as religious and class differences. An attempt is made in this article to give examples of socially constructed forms of violence which have been long accepted as tradition.

These harmful traditional practices include, events associated with male circumcision in many regions across Kenya. Other traditional activities include the “Notorious” burial ceremonies, female genital mutilation (FGM); Early or forced marriages; son preference, widow inheritance, wife battering; early pregnancy; and dowry price. Despite their harmful nature and their violation of international human rights laws, such practices persist because they are not questioned. Furthermore, they take on an aura of morality in the eyes of those practicing them.

The bleak reality is that the harmful traditional practices specified in this article have been performed for male benefit. Female sexual control by men, and the economic and political subordination of women, perpetuate the inferior status of women and inhibit structural and attitudinal changes necessary to eliminate gender inequality in the region. It’s our assertion that negative cultural practices thrive in an environment where women and the girl child have unequal access to education, wealth, health and employment as is the case in Western province of Kenya.

Many communities in Kenya face a deeply founded patriarchal society. Men dominate the socio-economic and political machinery and organizations. Men are regarded as natural leaders, who are superior and born to rule over women. Women are considered weaker vessels-extensions of men and secondary human beings. The pride and dignity of women are derived from and dependent on men.3

 The traditional male circumcision ritual is a very significant rite   of   passage   for   the   young   teenage initiates as it effectively signifies the transition from childhood to the league of adulthood. On the contrary, the ritual also acts as a  medium through which the initiates are exposed to messages that are highly sexualized and gender-stereotyped. They are encouraged to demonstrate sexual prowess and “hunt” together, using monetary gifts procure sex. They are taught how to be “tough” with women (wife battering) and how to make women work hard for them.

The boys are brain washed with messages which include fallacies like men being superior beings,  women  being  born  slaves  of  men,  never  allowing  women  to  own  anything, women only understand things when they are beaten and never to have one girlfriend or wife.    They are taught about how supporting a girl is like watering the neighbor’s garden and how the place of a woman is in the kitchen.

Across Kenya, one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way4. One such tradition is the “fire crossing” ritual which involves a man battering his wife as a sign of “love”. Among the Bukusu of Bungoma County in Western province, a wife who has been battered seeks “forgiveness” from her husband by serving him a delicacy of chicken stew5.

Gender-based violence both reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims. It encompasses a wide range of human rights violations, including sexual abuse of children, rape, domestic violence, economic exploitation, sexual assault and harassment, trafficking of women and girls and several harmful traditional practices. Any one of these abuses leaves deep psychological scars, damage the health of women and girls in general, including their reproductive and sexual health, and in some instances, results in death.

Disgracefully, FGM still forms an important part of the rites of passage ceremony for numerous communities across Kenya. The Somali, Kuria, Sabot, Maasai, Pokot, Samburu, Rendile, Meru and many others still practice FGM. They insist that FGM controls sexuality and ensures a woman’s virginity before marriage and chastity thereafter. On the contrary, FGM imposes a catalogue of health complications and untold psychological problems let alone international human rights laws including the right of the child to the “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health”, as affirmed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


In Kenya today, bull fighting is synonymous with the Luyia community in Western province. The sport which was a past time activity for the men and boys in the past is currently a leading tourist attraction for the region. However, the sport like many other have now become an avenue of propagating all the attributes of masculinity including propagating messages that inhibit on the rights and freedoms of women and girls. The sport has been an avenue for misinformed men to attribute courage and proficiency to men and cowardice and ineptitude to women and girls.  It’s through the sport that messages about uncontainable sexual craving is hailed and wife battering praised. The sport is currently associated with excessive alcoholism, wife battering, rape and unprotected sex. Ikolomani constituency in Mumias Butere District is the leading bull fighting destination in Africa.6

One of the principal forms of discrimination in Kenya and one which has far-reaching implications on women and girls is the preference accorded to the boy child over the girl child.  This practice denies the girl child good health, education, recreation, economic opportunity and the right to choose her partner. Vastly, a female child in Kenya is disadvantaged from birth thus subjected second class parental care and non extent investment in her development.

As result of archaic traditions and practices, women and girls in the region are still portrayed as inert and domestically oriented, while men are depicted as dominant and as breadwinners. In the process 40% of girls in the region continue to be denied the right to reach their education optimal thus reducing the opportunity to be less dependent on men in later life. The decentralized funds indicator puts the inclusion of women and girls in the decision making process in terms of the recently increased decentralized funds at 0.2%. It is accurate to insist that women in Kenya are victims of unrelenting economic marginalization.

Early marriage is another severe predicament which 30% of the girls undergo in Kenya. The practice involves giving away girls for marriage at the age below the mandatory 18 years.   The main motivation for this are concerns about the girls’ virginity and the enduring allure for bride-price. As a result, early pregnancy has led to profound harmful consequences to both young mothers and their babies7. The numerous cultural practices, including nutritional and dietary taboos, ensure that women and girls are deprived of essential nutrients. For example, in many parts of Kenya it’s still a taboo for women to eat eggs, some parts of chicken, liver and nutritious traditional vegetables. The aftermath of this has been ever increasing child mortality rates, mal-nutrition and deaths.8





In many parts of Kenya, men are encouraged to marry as many wives as possible. In fact, in many communities, men measure their wealth and influence by the number of women   they   have   and   control.   While   the practice is being discarded in many of the world mainly due to demographic factors, it’s on    a    steady    raise    in    Kenya.9

 One of the most pervasive rituals associated with the ceremony is sexual cleansing (sometimes involving spending a night with a dead body) and which is followed by inheritance and the eventual disinheritance. In a nutshell, polygamy is still considered a strong indicator of a man’s virility and need for sexual satisfaction. Nyanza province takes lead on this.

Alcohol consumption was a longtime ago associated with age and wisdom. The consumption was stratified in terms of age group, gender, social status and occasions. In addition, alcohol consumption was a cultural practice that brought people together for an identified purpose. However, the once vital practice has been abused with reports currently indicating that eight out of ten youths in the country are currently abusing alcohol. The consumption of alcohol is known to have numerous effects on behavior and acts as an arousal agent thus increasing the potential for sexual risk through unprotected sex with unsafe partners10.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV), in its various forms, is endemic in Kenya. Exposure to gender-based violence and sexual coercion significantly increases girls’ and women’s chances of early sexual debut, experiencing forced sex, engaging in transactional sex, and non-use of condoms11. The results which include human rights violations, increased HIV infection and poor AIDS management are all evident in the country12.Violence against women and girls is both a cause and consequence of AIDS. Research has confirmed a strong correlation between sexual and other forms of abuse against women and women’s chances of contracting HIV. In  addition,  the  fear  of violence prevents many women from asking their partners to use condoms, accessing HIV  information,  and  from  getting  tested  and  seeking  treatment,  even  when  they strongly suspect they have been infected. Many women are in danger of being beaten, abandoned or thrown out of their homes if the HIV-positive status is known.

It is imperative to affirm that there are numerous traditional practices and customs that have  not  been  expounded  upon  in  this  submission  but  the  fact  remains  that  they continue to cause extensive damage not just to women and girls but also to men and boys. Sometimes it is much easier to change structures and laws but more difficult to change attitudes, beliefs and practices. This is borne out by the fact that many of the customs  and  practices  have  survived  centuries  predating  Christianity,  traditional religions and Islam. Sadly, in many parts of Kenya, the harmful practices are showing no signs of abating. We are determined to significantly reduce the practice  of  these  traditions  because  of  the  fact  that  these  practices  are  primarily violations of human rights of women and girls and have been known to have immediate and long- term physical and psychological effects on them.


One of the most interesting and challenging experiences I have had as a pro-feminist in the past couple of years has been trying to persuade my people to abandon these horrible and primitive customs. I have tried to   persuade them   to   see   the   need   for progress and improvement in our attitudes, value and society. We must openly examine the traditions we have held and accepted as revered. Many of these traditions are founded on traditional dogma, ignorance, and superstition.14

The  writer  is  a  Founder  /  CEO  of  The  Coexist  Initiative,  a  not  for  profit  synergy  0f  men  and  boys community‐based  organizations  committed  to  eliminating  all  forms  of  Gender  based  violence  in  Kenya. Visit    or    email‐    facebook‐wanjala    Wafula‐ skype:coexist.initiative.  Tel:  +254712653322


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