Last Updated 30 November 2020

The Republic of Kenya is situated between Somalia and Uganda. The population is largely Christian (85.5%), with a large Muslim minority (10.9%), with other religious minorities making up the rest of the population.1 Kenya is home to more than 498,000 refugees, the majority of whom come from neighbouring Somalia.2;

In recent years, there has been growing terrorist violence in Kenya, which in part has contributed to new laws that put restrictions on freedom of expression.

Kenya requested full membership to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 2011.

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

In 2010, Kenya adopted a new Constitution3 that states there is no state religion (Article 8) and lays out a secular system of law. The Constitution protects the rights to freedom of expression (Article 33), freedom of the media (Article 34), freedom of association and assembly (Articles 36 and 27), and freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion (Article 32).

According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based non governmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status. However, registration of new groups has been paused while the Rules of Religious Societies are revised. As of 2019, there were estimated to be 4,400 such groups awaiting approval.4

Education and children’s rights

All public schools have religious education classes taught by government funded teachers. The national curriculum mandates religious classes, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer both.5

Olympic High School case

In a case regarded as a test of religious freedom in the country, a girl was sent home by Olympic High School, Nairobi over her dreadlocks. Her father went to court on 14 January 2019, suing the school for sending his daughter home for refusing to cut her dreadlocks. His lawyer, Wambua Shadrack, said the action amounted to discrimination on the basis of Rastafarian beliefs. Justice Chacha Mwita ruled that Rastafarianism is a religion, whose practices, including the growing of dreadlocks, shouldn’t be discriminated against in public institutions. “The fact that she keeps rastas should not have been the basis to chase her from school,” the judge said, reiterating that: “School rules should never be applied in a manner that infringes on the students’ Constitutional rights”

Family, community and society

Atheists in Kenya are vastly in the minority, both to the Christian majority and the smaller Muslim population. There is significant religious influence on social and moral issues, detrimental to human rights standards and equalities.

In 2014, lawyer and human rights activist Achieng Maureen Akena argued: “This link between religion and oppression is particularly visible today in Kenya, where the public’s religious adherence is increasing with rising poverty and insecurity. My country’s television and radio stations cover religion more frequently than before, even as Kenyans decry their radically increasing cost of living, ongoing unemployment, and rising physical insecurity. Kenya’s official 50th anniversary celebrations, moreover… included more religious content than any of our previous Independence Day festivities.”

Religious courts

Under Article 45(4)(b) of the Kenyan Constitution, parliament is required to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. The Constitution also allows Kadhis’ courts to be used where all parties concerned describe themselves as Muslims and agree to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the court. These courts are permitted to make rulings on matters relating to personal status, marriage, divorce and inheritance. But there is no mechanism for ensuring that vulnerable persons of Muslim background will not be pressured into using these courts. This includes individuals who may not even be Muslim but are socially pressured to conform anyway. The country’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the Kadhis’ courts, and accepts appeals of any Kadhis’ court decision.8

LGBTI+ Rights

Homophobia and transphobia is common. “Openly gay or transgender people are vulnerable to physical violence, harassment and intimidation.”

On 24 May 2019, Nairobi’s High Court upheld the nation’s laws criminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults.10 The ruling was the culmination of a three-year long petition by three organizations working to promote LGBTI+ rights.11 This ruling contrasts several other court decisions in recent years that have instead upheld LGBTI+ people’s fundamental rights. Activists said they would appeal the May 24 High Court ruling.

Under Articles 162,163 and 165 of the Penal Code12 – a legacy of the British colonial era – consenting adults engaging in homosexual acts could spend up to 14 years in prison. However, the laws are rarely enforced, according to Human Rights Watch.13

In 2018, the Kenyan film classification board banned the lesbian film ‘Rafiki’, on the grounds that it promotes homosexuality. “It is a sad moment and a great insult, not only to the film industry, but to all Kenyans who stand for morality, that a film that glories homosexuality is allowed to be the country’s branding tool abroad … The board firmly believes films should reflect the dominant values of the Kenyan people. Homosexuality does not qualify as such,” the board said in a

In September 2018, the Nairobi High Court ruled to temporarily lift the ban on the film, permitting it be shown for one week.15

Under Article 45(2) the Kenyan Constitution, marriage is a union between members of the opposite sex.16

Non-belief in the times of a pandemic

According to Atheists in Kenya Society:

“As COVID-19 spread around the world, here in Kenya the government seemed to place religion ahead of health. President Uhuru Kenyatta hosted religious leaders to a day of national prayer just before the government suspended all social gatherings/events. As the public health measures took effect, some religious leaders said that their places of worship would remain open to the public, against government directives. This business-as-usual attitude among some religious and political leaders threatened to undermine public efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus.”

As restrictions came into force preventing gatherings, non-theist groups, like all others, were forced to move their activities online, or cancel them where this wasn’t possible.

Those of religious faith were initially inclined to explain the pandemic variously as some kind of global conspiracy or a punishment from God.

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression, freedom of the media, freedom of association and assembly are enshrined in the Kenyan Constitution. However, respect for these rights is varied and often restricted on the pretext of tackling insecurity. In the case of freedom of expression specifically, an array of laws carrying criminal sanctions are used to silence journalists and self-censorship is reported to be common.17

During the state’s review at the UN Universal Periodic Review in 2015, Kenya accepted recommendations to specifically guarantee freedom of expression, press, associations and peaceful assembly of journalists, activists and participants in demonstrations in both law and practice.

But to date, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is not sufficiently protected in Kenyan law, and the right is routinely violated by law enforcement authorities responding to protests. The government has also failed to put in place measures to ensure the safety and protection of journalists, bloggers, and others expressing their opinion.18

At its most recent review in January 2020, the state once again accepted recommendations on these rights.19

Media freedom

The Kenyan Information and Communications Amendment Bill in 2013 introduced strong controls on radio and television

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), media freedom in Kenya has been slowly eroding since 2016, with security concerns being used as one of the key rationales for tightening restrictions.21 RSF report that: “During election campaigns, the media are routinely subjected to physical attacks by the security forces and the public, as well as to threats and intimidation by politicians, confiscation of equipment, and censorship of journalistic content. Journalists can pay dearly for covering opposition events or for portraying President Uhuru Kenyatta’s party and its flaws in a negative light.”

In June 2019, blogger Robert Alai was detained and charged under Section 19 of the state’s Prevention of Terrorism Act 2012 after he shared images of police officers killed in a terrorist attack. Alai was charged even after he had taken down the images at the request of the police.22 In an unrelated incident, Alai was subsequently charged under the problematic Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act23 in relation to a tweet about COVID-19 which the state claims was false.24

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, ARTICLE 19 documented 48 attacks on journalists attempting to cover the government’s handling of the crisis. The number represented more than twice that of the previous six months.25

Suppression of protests

According to research conducted by ARTICLE 19, at least 7 protestors were killed and a further 21 injured in Kenya during or as a result of protests held between 2018-2019.26 Citizens protesting issues ranging from education to sexual violence, corruption and environmental degradation, among others, have been met with excessive use of force at the hands of the security forces despite having robust mechanisms in place to protect the right to peacefully protest.


“I don’t know what my family has a harder time accepting, my atheism or my orientation. I came out as an atheist when I was 17 and when I told them I was gay later on, they concluded that I’m gay because I don’t believe in god.

It’s been really hard being a gay atheist because I’m an assertive person who doesn’t run away from debate. I’ve lost many friends and been blocked and deleted on Facebook. I’ve been betrayed by family (a relative complained to my father and demanded I be reprimanded for my orientation). I’ve been drugged and raped because I came out to someone I thought was my friend, but I felt like no one was going to believe me so I never spoke about it after it happened, I just never spoke to my attacker again. I’ve been ignored by family members who I used to be really close to because they know I’m a gay atheist.

… I’m still forced to go to church when my mother wants me to which is very uncomfortable because she truly believes that if she forces me to go to church, I’ll go back to being a “straight Christian”.

… My sexuality and religious views are not the problem, it’s the religious intolerance and homophobia that has the problem. Changing their perception of me is not easy because they’ve been brainwashed, so I stopped trying.  … The thing with homophobia and religious people is that they hate what makes them feel uncomfortable and victimise whoever’s different. But I’ll never stop voicing my opinions because I am a person with rights and I hope to be respected more one day.”

— Dorothy


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