“The ensuing hostility to the Bill, evident when individual Members of Parliament presented it to their constituents, was a clear reminder of People Power, and a kick in the guts for proponents who thought they could just rush it through the House Floor.”
The 2009 Marriage and Divorce Bill arguably collapsed the minute Justice Minister Gen. Kahinda Otafiire gave a lackluster presentation on the House Floor followed by a disconcerting attempt to explain away the so-called “Cohabitation Clause” in the Bill. When Speaker Kadaga reluctantly yielded to repeated requests for further public consultations on the Bill, the result of these quasi public awareness campaigns was a slap in the face of proponents of the Bill. Following a torrent of pointed nationwide Easter messages in Churches, conducted to deliberately coincide with consultation exercises by Members of Parliament, Ugandans emerged from the Easter break with a unanimous verdict on the Marriage and Divorce Bill: they didn’t like it. And their MPs were sure to hear them loud and clear. Mini rallies were headlined by protests such as “the Bill is a waste of time,” ostensibly because there are more pertinent issues like poverty and corruption that deserve urgent attention. The perception of abolishment of bride price, indiscriminate sharing of marital property, the seemingly alien idea of marital rape, and jumbled discussions over cohabitation practices and legal grounds for divorce were the key ingredients of a nationwide resentment simmering underneath a dull drive by Speaker Kadaga and Co. to pass the Bill. Within two weeks, some MPs pronounced the Bill dead as others called for its immediate withdrawal. A recent NRM Parliamentary Caucus meeting was called by President Museveni in a decidedly obvious move to “formally bury” the Bill. Here are our top six reasons why the Bill fell apart.
6. Opposition by Religious Leaders
Ugandan religious leaders rejected the Bill upfront. Church leaders drummed up opposition to the Bill as they framed the argument by highlighting the apparent contradictions between the proposals in the Bill and Judeo-Christian philosophy on marriage and divorce. They opposed anything to do with cohabitation, rallied against divorce clauses in the Bill, and warned that history will judge harshly the present crop of politicians if they enact such a Bill. Even though the arguments they put forward in opposition to the Bill were not the strongest arguments, any political observer will acknowledge that Ugandan religious leaders wield enormous influence over their flock, and that their unanimity in opposition to the Bill contributed significantly to its collapse.
5. Lack of Effective Public Awareness Campaigns
Speaker Kadaga hoped that the Bill would be passed shortly after a few days of debate in Parliament. She could not have been more wrong. The authors of the Bill obviously underestimated the scale of public awareness campaigns necessary to spur public support for the Bill. And they did a horrible job convincing the average Ugandan that there were good things in the Bill. Where were radio commercials highlighting key points of the Bill? Where were bill-board advertisements, dedicated Facebook and Twittter pages, TV commercials and newspaper ads touting the benefits of the Marriage and Divorce Bill? Why didn’t someone think of having select Kampala taxis elegantly painted with Bill-promoting sentiments on the emergency windows? Sounds like a silly idea, but it works, because a good number of Kampala taxis have such paintings/writings (of arguably far lesser interest) on their emergency windows. The public awareness campaign executed in favor of the Bill was so dismal and so ineffective that the message reaching the overwhelming fraction of Uganda’s population was predominantly anti-Marriage and Divorce Bill. There were a few seminars (like the one at Makerere University) organized to discuss the Bill, but such seminars reach only a minute fraction of the population, and are often attended by fairly well-educated people who understand appreciably the contents the Bill, and are only interested in furthering their knowledge of the diverse views on the Bill. Whether it was lack of sufficient funds or ineptitude on the part of the Bill’s major proponents, the glaring ineffectiveness of their public awareness strategy ensured the collapse of the Bill.
4. Role of Members of Parliament and President Museveni
The spectacle of animated MPs jostling for the microphone in order to deliver their educated opinion on the Marriage and Divorce Bill was a fine moment of practical democracy in Uganda. But the inability of the Bill’s proponents to cobble a workable Parliamentary Unit tasked with rebutting talking points from the Bill’s opponents was a disappointment. Female MPs, who initially supported the Bill, reportedly turned around once it became obvious that the odds were against them. The voices of male MPs who opposed the Bill crowded out anything else that female MPs might have proposed, and without a basic structural Unit holding together their coalition, support for the Bill was doomed. And then there is President Museveni. His strategic opposition to the Bill was dumbfounding and smart at the same time. Dumbfounding, because the Marriage and Divorce Bill is a government Bill, and what a strange thing it is for the President to run away from his own Bill (one wonders whether they ever consulted amongst themselves before the Bill was tabled in Parliament). Smart, because the President correctly gauged the pulse of the vast majority of Ugandans, and concluded that there was little support for the Bill. Why put your money on a losing game? It is remarkable that in a recent closed NRM meeting, Grace Baryugaba, Women MP for Isingiro, reportedly quipped, “Your Excellency, the people are accusing us of wasting time on this bill; in fact, they have said that it is only you who has been on their side, because you have always spoken against it…” Clearly, knowing the political shrewdness of Mr Museveni, supporters of the Bill were in for a rude awakening given Mr Museveni’s stance against the Bill.
3. Puzzling Clauses in the Marriage and Divorce Bill
Take, for example, Section 56(1), which discusses what makes a Christian Marriage voidable. Section 56, Subsection 1, says a Christian Marriage may be voidable if a spouse conceals a “material fact.” What? How do you define a “material fact?” On the subject of Conjugal Rights, Section 114 (2d) says that a spouse may deny the other the right to sexual intercourse on reasonable fear that engaging in sexual intercourse “may cause physical or psychological harm or injury.” This comes right after identifying poor health, surgery and child birth as reasonable grounds for denying sexual intercourse to one’s spouse. But why Section 114 (2d)? How does a spouse/court determine what constitutes “reasonable fear”? The language in some sections of this Bill is unnecessarily ambiguous, open to several interpretations with the potential of furthering marriage breakdowns to an inordinate degree, if enacted. A third example can be found in Section 147 (2b) which states that the court may accept, as evidence of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, sexual perversion of one of the partners, and that sexual perversion includes, among other things, pornography (Section 147 3(d)). How does the Bill define pornography? Is it watching pornographic material on one’s computer, or seeing naked pictures of beautiful babes in Red Pepper? Such ambiguity, in a way, lends credence to suggestions by religious leaders that the Bill glosses over some very serious marital problems, with the overall effect of weakening the institution of marriage. Thus, contentious clauses in the Bill, coupled with ambiguous and sometimes confusing subsections, bolstered arguments by opponents of the Bill, contributing to its collapse.
2. Proponents didn’t do their Homework on Current Social Trends in Uganda
Seasoned political operatives will advise any Pol not to waste his political capital unless there is a clear and present political problem. In other words, if it is not broken, don’t fix it. To know whether a problem exists, research is absolutely necessary. In our case, proponents of the Marriage and Divorce Bill might have helped themselves if they had some rigorous data to support their case. Alas, all we got were confusing estimates of the proportion of Ugandan couples in cohabiting relationships, and no data to back up the need for property sharing rights, conjugal rights, etc. Hot potato issues like marriage and divorce ought to be approached with irrefutable evidence of current social practices that demands such legislation, supported by rigorous scientific data. For example, some questions that need be addressed include: what is the divorce rate among married couples? How does this compare with divorce rates ten years ago? Why don’t we have a Strategic Data Gathering Center that specializes in quantifying social trends in the country? Why do we have to rely on surveys like The Uganda Demographics and Health Survey to understand social changes in the country? If we cannot get a better handle on trends in marriage, divorce, prostitution, cohabitation, etc, how can we pass a Bill that addresses a problem we are barely aware of? The gravest error made by proponents of the Bill was to pen a Bill based on sketchy data and faulty assumptions.
1. Public Opinion
Public opinion is characteristically fluid, changing with the times and circumstances. In a democracy, it is monumentally difficult to enact laws, the central theses of which are diametrical to the prevailing public opinion. Hate it or love it, the vast majority of Ugandans are Christians, and when it comes to marriage and divorce, their religious views inform their choice of what is acceptable social policy. Proposing a Bill that can be construed as an assault on Christian teachings is a risky proposition in Uganda (the authors exempted Muslims from the Bill), and it helps, politically, to get an accurate read of the public mood before coming up with a Bill of such importance. The ensuing hostility to the Bill, evident when individual Members of Parliament presented it to their constituents, was a clear reminder of People Power, and a kick in the guts for proponents who thought they could just rush it through the House Floor. Mr Museveni accurately captured these sentiments when he reportedly told the NRM Parliamentary Caucus, “The white man can come in the country to do politics, but we shall not allow them to distort culture.” Sad as it may sound, the average countryside Ugandan will likely see this Bill as an unnecessary introduction of alien “white man” cultures to further distill their already eroding cultures, customs and mores. When you have such a strong majority in opposition to a Bill, it would be heresy to attempt to pass the Bill without any amendments, which is why talks of trashing the Bill abound. Are there good things in the Bill? You bet. But, overall, the Bill proposes measures and introduces social practices that are arguably not in sync with where we are as a culture. That is why the neglect of public opinion by proponents of the Bill is the number one reason why the Bill was doomed from the start.