Legislating Marriage in Uganda: MPs Sharply divided over Cohabitation

The Marriage and Divorce Bill has stalled in Parliament since the 1960s. And now, Members of Parliament want quick action. Hurdles or not, the Speaker (Ms Rebecca Kadaga) intends to table the Bill for a vote soon, and fireworks have been flaring on the House floor as MPs participate in a heated debate over some contentious parts of the Bill. Parts of the Bill strives to abolish some traditional marriage practices (e.g, widow inheritance) and promote what is considered mainstream ideas on the constitution of a modern marriage arrangement. As one might expect, a clash between these two opposing sides is inevitable. However, a unanimous agreement has been reached on two items, atop placing the age of consent for marriage at 18 years: (i) widow inheritance (i.e., a brother-in-law marrying a widow and inheriting her properties without her consent) is now punishable by law, and (ii) bride price is now non-refundable, so if a marriage is dissolved for any number of reasons, the man who would have paid substantial sums of cash and property as bride price should expect to get nothing in return.

Until now, the accepted practice of returning bride price (to the ex-husband) upon the breakdown of marriage has served to further a culture of increasing violence against women, particularly because of societal marginalization that accompanies a woman who divorces (or is divorced by) her husband, and goes back to her family to beg for the price price to be paid back. Consequently, women in rocky marriages have often had to tolerate, in some cases, unimaginable violence from husbands who take pride in the fact that the wife will not have the guts to return back to her family. Here is a typical scenario: a cheating husband, an acute drinker who enjoys roughing up his wife every day or a bummer who doesn’t provide for his family but squanders whatever he makes on gambling and booze—if you are married to a guy like that, you have got to think twice before you divorce him. Do you risk being disowned by your family for asking for the return of bride price? Some families have reportedly sent back their own daughter to the husband, whatever his character flaws are. Abolishing the requirement for bride price to be returned opens several opportunities for women in such relationships, and it is the right thing to do.

Members of Parliament, however, have not agreed yet on what to do with cohabiting couples. Should they recognize cohabitation as a legitimate form of marriage, and give cohabiting couples the same status and benefits as legally married couples? In a country that is over 85% christian, such a debate is bound to stir some very raw emotions. Lwengo Women MP, Ms Gertrude Nakabira likened cohabitation to “outright prostitution” and declared that she would never support laws that encourage children to go against “church law,” demonstrating wittingly or unwittingly the influence of personal religious views in shaping her opinion of what constitutes the right laws. But Mr Kahinda Otafiire had a different take on all this, arguing that cohabitation must be “recognized” in order to protect the “children who have come out of cohabitation.” His forceful delivery on a boisterous House floor highlighted the linchpin of liberal thinking on this particular issue. At stake also are the property rights of cohabiting couples. At this point, it looks like the majority of MPs are against any law that seeks to elevate cohabitation to the status of legally recognized marriage. But as other MPs have argued, cohabitation is rife in Uganda today. Although most communities do not recognize cohabitation, more and more adults are cohabiting before marriage, and in some cases, couples do not marry at all. A good law will have to address the fate of children in such relationships, particularly when such relationships come apart at the seams.

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