Uganda: Marriage and Divorce Bill a Tough Call

Published on 25th March 2013

Uganda's First Family attend a royal wedding            P. Courtesy
This bill touches the nerve center of Uganda's cultural, societal, traditional and religious norms. It is at the centre of who we are. It challenges us to reflect on aspects of our cultural belief psychology that seems to contradict edicts of bellicose modernity and waves of globalization. The foregoing could be why this bill has galvanized wide and keen attention.  Make no mistake - majority of both men and women are looking at it with suspicion and sheer reluctance. To promote shared understanding, proponents of this bill will need to democratize information.

I however understand the motivations of its proponents.  They rightly argue that justice, fairness and equality – even in the sacred institution of marriage - are universal norms that transcend any culture or tradition. I also agree that sometimes culture and traditions of some societies can be cruel and unacceptable. Take for instance child sacrifice, female genital mutilation, rape, castration, killing of twins, ritual murders, forced circumcision, inheritance traditions that are lopsided against females. Therefore, the argument that a law should be in place to counter some of our cherished – yet cruel traditions are timely and should be supported. However, where the bill, without any foreseen injurious outcomes heavily contradicts cultural and religious norms - it should be harmonized and pushed forward.  In spite of its good intentions, I have been scratching my head on how the law will deal with cohabitation and marital rape.

For starters, cohabitation is an arrangement where two people who are not married live together in an intimate relationship, particularly an emotionally and/or sexually intimate one, on a long-term or permanent basis. Now this bill seeks to enforce rights (property) for cohabiting couples who have lived together for two or more years and wish to part ways. Whereas this could be noble, how will it be determined? You see, when a couple is wed in church, they receive a marriage certificate. There is also a civil route where couples tie note in front of government Registrar of marriages and they also receive a certificate of marriage. With the foregoing actions, the married are entered in the book and their union is on record. So, who will record cohabiting couples? Who will determine that a couple has lived together for two or more years? What will be the point of reference? I think promoters of this important bill should remove this ambiguity. Such a loophole can be exploited by unscrupulous gold diggers (who can be men or women) to cheat and claim undue rights. Take for example a partner who you have dated for a week and shows up with a cartel of hired witnesses claiming that you have been cohabiting for two or more years, and wants an equal share of your property. How will the law deal with this? Should partners who seek to cohabit be registered by Local council one? Should the couple sign agreement at the start of their cohabitation? There is need for answers before we can proceed on this bill that seeks to validate cohabitation.

Whereas there could be many legitimate reasons that explain cohabitation in Uganda or elsewhere in the world, University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite recently found that "16 percent of cohabiting women reported that arguments with their partners became physical during the past year, while only 5 percent of married women had similar experiences." Most cohabiting couples have a faithful relationship, but Waite's surveys also demonstrated that 20 percent of cohabiting women reported having secondary sex partners, compared to only 4 percent of married women. Could the foregoing resonate for Uganda?

The other issue in the bill generating debate is marital rape. Scientists seem to argue that this is hard to prove. Even legally, who will be the witness? A partner who wants out may use this aspect of the law to secure quick and convenient divorce. This could make the institution of marriage vulnerable. Stories of marital rape are rife. Especially for women who have just given birth-it is pitiful and cruel. A solution must be found. Could non legal solutions be more sustainable? We can think of counseling, spiritual guidance, cultural interventions etc. Many also seem to argue that this law relegates men – as if they are immune to vulnerability. For the bill to move forward – it must also balance the interest of men and women. Will the law provide a silver bullet solution or rather weaken the institution of marriage? Your guess is as good as mine.

Morrison Rwakakamba
Chief Executive Officer, Agency for Transformation
[email protected]

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