When the history of Kenya’s matrimonial laws will be written, Priscilla Njeri Echaria’s name will feature prominently.
The 82-year-old woman, who was buried at her home in Tigoni yesterday, pulled a first when she challenged her husband, Peter Echaria for a share of their matrimonial property, setting precedence in the fight for women rights in Kenya.
A moving eulogy, penned by her brother summarised the life of a woman who lived a full life, fought many battles but still enjoyed the little pleasures of life such as working in her farm. Priscilla passed away on January 3 after a long illness.
“Her resilience and good humour and absolute lack of rancour sustained her in the midst of health challenges,” read the eulogy.
In a statement, Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya (Fida) described her as a legend who will be remembered for fighting patriarchy.
“She began the challenge and all people of goodwill believing in women’s rights should stand up and complete the fight. Even in her demise, her work will forever live on,” said FIDA’s Executive director, Teresa Omondi-Adeitan.
When Priscilla married her husband, at a civil wedding in Moscow, USSR in 1964, she was not required to work because of his diplomatic state. The eulogy gave snippets of a love affair that culminated with Priscilla flying all the way from the US to Russia to marry her husband, without any formal negotiations.
She settled into her role as a diplomat’s wife, supporting her husband as he moved from country to country, serving his nation. Their union did not last. When they divorced in 1987, Priscilla moved to court to demand half of their matrimonial property.
A High Court judge Frank Shields granted her prayers and ruled that Priscilla should get half of their 118 acres of land in Limuru, which was at the time valued at Sh60.8 million.
Her husband challenged the decision in 2001 at the Court of Appeal through lawyer Gibson Kamau Kuria and in February 2007, appellate judges Philip Waki, Erastus Githinji and Emmanuel O’ Kubasu and WS Deverell overruled Justice Shield and reduced Priscilla’s share of the matrimonial property to a quarter of the assets, which included their home.
“The respondents share shall be demarcated where the farmhouse and outer buildings stand and shall include the matrimonial home and access to it,” Justice Tunoi said.
Lawyer Wilfred Ngunjiri Nderitu who represented Priscilla during the appeal process recalled her disappointment when the all-men bench ruled that she was only entitled to a quarter of their matrimonial property.
“She felt the ruling was unfair because Justice Shields had awarded her half of their matrimonial property as per the law. It was not that she was favoured in any way,” Nderitu who has known her for 18 years told People Daily.
Priscilla was a beneficiary of the Tom Mboya dream flights and had studied at Oregon State University where she graduated with a degree in History in the 1960s. She felt a professional in her own right but could not take up a job during the time her husband worked abroad because she was barred by the law.
“When her husband was redeployed to the country, Priscilla got a job and could pay household bills and fuel the family car and assisted her husband to further his career. She could not understand why the court had reduced her share,” he said.
Parliament later passed the Matrimonial Property Act 2014 that required spouses to prove their contribution to a union.
Fida challenged the changes in court but Justice J Mativo dismissed it saying the law requiring equal sharing of the matrimonial property would attract gold diggers. Fida contested the ruling and the case is pending at the Court of Appeal.