Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Marriage Bill harms rights of the mentally ill

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 30 March 2014

Two things caught my eye this past week, and both are worthy of comment. First, our National Assembly passed a Marriage Bill that has elicited all manner of comment, ranging from polygamy to gay marriage. Unfortunately, combing through the Bill, one comes across several instances of senselessly discriminatory clauses, chiefly against people with mental illnesses.

For instance, the effect of Clause 12(a)(ii) of the Bill is to prohibit people with chronic mental illnesses characterised by recurrent episodes from getting married. Similarly, Clauses 66(6)(g) and 73(1)(g) make such mental illnesses legitimate reasons for voiding or annulling a marriage.

The net effect of the Marriage Bill as debated and passed in Parliament is to ensure that a diagnosis of a chronic mental illness would mean that the individual cannot legally get married. It also means that even if one is already married, if they are found to have had a chronic mental illness with a chronic recurrent course, their spouses could legally petition for the marriage to be annulled.

The problem with this bill, as with all legislation that purports to use mental illness as a reason to restrict people’s rights, is that the originators clearly do not have an understanding of what constitutes mental illness. 


Current research evidence suggests that between 10 and 25 per cent of our population suffers from a serious mental illness. The import of the Marriage Bill is that this large segment of our population would be condemned to a loveless life in which any attempt at a long-term relationship would be null and void.

Before he assents to it, the president must subject this bill to thorough scrutiny by mental health professionals in order to cure it of these discriminatory and unconstitutional provisions. However, if he agrees with the intent of the bill, which is to prevent the mentally ill from contracting legal marriages, he must demand a clause that requires that everyone of marriageable age undergo periodic psychiatric evaluations that shall determine whether they can get married, or if already married, whether the marriage may continue to be recognised under the law.

This, of course, means that he will have to budget for the training and recruitment of a huge number of mental health specialists in the coming years to help implement these provisions. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing after all!

The second issue that caught my attention were media reports alleging that Catholic Cardinal John Njue had raised misgivings about a tetanus vaccine aimed at preventing maternal and child illness and deaths related to childbirth. He allegedly termed the mass immunisation campaign “fishy”, and urged his followers to further interrogate this vaccine.

The cardinal, when he speaks, is assumed to be speaking for the Catholic Church. Devout followers of the Church are expected to hang onto his every word, and look up to him for spiritual guidance. When he suggests that a vaccine may be dangerous, at least some of his followers will take him seriously and start refusing it. The result will be potential illness and deaths that would have been prevented by the vaccination.

Before making such potentially harmful statements, religious leaders would be well advised to seek competent guidance from experts in the field, many of whom may be found among the faithful of the church. 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine. lukoye@gmail.com

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