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March 15, 2013

Ugandan Marriage Bill Pits Women’s Rights Against Tradition

by Hilary Heuler

The Ugandan parliament is haggling over a controversial marriage and divorce bill supported by women's rights groups.  The bill is causing an uproar in Ugandan society.

The Marriage and Divorce Bill outlaws a number of traditional practices, makes asset sharing mandatory in a divorce, gives cohabiting partners property rights and makes marital rape illegal.

Women’s rights groups have embraced it, saying these measures will curb domestic violence and give women more power over their lives.  But in Uganda, where the church is powerful and cultural traditions run deep, the bill makes some people very angry.

Parliament is deeply divided, and some MPs have walked out of heated debates.  The church has come out against cohabitation and divorce legislation, and defenders of tradition are up in arms.

One clause of the bill would make it illegal, in case of divorce, to demand a refund of the so-called “bride price,” the sum traditionally paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s. 

Betty Kasiko of the Uganda Women’s Network explains that many women get stuck in bad marriages when their families cannot afford the refund.

"Once they move away, their families are pushing them back, telling them ‘You have to stay in that marriage because you know we cannot refund that bride price that was given,'"  she said.

Another clause states that unmarried couples living together for ten years or more must split their assets if they break up.

Many Ugandans see this as legalizing a situation that should have been avoided to begin with. According to this man in Kampala, such a law would be an affront to tradition.

"Traditionally, people have to get married," he said.  "You have to introduce me to your parents.  Formal introduction to both parents, that is the kind of marriage that has to happen first, then you call someone your wife, then you can have the sharing when you are divorcing.”

But, says Kasiko, cohabitation is a reality for 60 percent of Ugandan couples.  Many women do not have a choice in the matter, she says, and when the couple splits up it is often the woman who leaves empty-handed.

"We know many times as women, they cannot negotiate for the formal marriages," she said. "They are less empowered, they are less propertied, they are less financed, so they really wait upon the man. The property rights of these people should be protected."

Peter Atekyereza, sociologist at Kampala’s Makarere University, says it is difficult to legislate on matters of tradition and culture.  He does not think the law should be judging men for following the value systems in which they were raised.

"Any law should be building on the cultural value systems, not the value systems building on the law," he said. "You cannot wake up one time and say, ‘I have put up a law, it is going to wipe out the value systems.’  Because these value systems, we acquire them unconsciously.  Some of the things done by men, which are bad, to women, it’s not that they consciously know that they are doing them.  So why are you criminalizing him now?"

But, says Kasiko, culture should not be an excuse for injustice.

"They are injustices happening within society, but which people cherish as culture, which people cherish as ‘It’s our religion, it’s our faith, so it cannot be challenged,'" she said.

Ugandan society has always been patriarchal, she adds, and its cultural beliefs were shaped by men.

"Our clan heads, our elders, all of them are male," said Kasiko. "They’ve done things unconsciously, but because it is only men, who represents the issues of women in these clan meetings?  So it’s really been bent and biased towards uplifting men over women.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has urged caution on the bill, and planned to discuss it Friday at the ruling party caucus.  The party’s position could well determine the bill’s fate.