Uganda’s Marriage and Divorce Bill on the Table, Again

While international eyes are focused on Kenya in light of the recent elections, an important debate is ongoing in Uganda.

Uganda’s Marriage and Divorce Bill of 2009 is finally being debated in its parliament.  The bill in its various iterations has been waiting for parliamentary approval for approximately 40 years.  Although it would be an important step forward for women’s rights in marriage, many provisions of the bill remain controversial.

The Marriage and Divorce Bill has a long and tortured history.  A version of the bill was presented to Parliament in the 1970s, designed in part to improve women’s rights in marriage and also to consolidate the multiple acts regulating customary marriage, Hindu marriage, civil marriage, Christian marriage, and Islamic marriage.  This bill failed to pass.  A 2003 Domestic Relations Bill sought to achieve the same goals, but faced enormous resistance from Muslim groups opposed to the provisions banning polygamy.  After being rejected by Parliament in 2006, the bill was split into a Muslim Personal Bill, which covers Muslim marriages, and the Marriage and Divorce Bill, currently being debated.

Among the controversial provisions in the current bill are those that pertain to brideprice, a customary practice requiring payment of consideration by a groom to his wife’s family.  For years women’s groups have contested the customary practice requiring payment of brideprice to legitimize a marriage, yet its supporters consider it to be an important cultural element of marriage.  The Constitutional Court recently refused to ban the practice, a decision that is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court.  The current Marriage and Divorce Bill states that brideprice cannot be treated as a pre-requisite for marriage, and makes criminal the act of demanding repayment of brideprice.

Although many argue that this payment is merely symbolic, in conversations with me, Ugandan women have complained that it permits men to consider their wives their property and grant them few rights.  In connection with women’s ability to own or inherit property, I have often heard the phrase, “property cannot own property.”

The demand for repayment of brideprice can also keep women in abusive or unhappy marriages.  If a woman seeks a divorce, her husband or his family often demands a return of brideprice.  Unfortunately, that brideprice has not been paid to the woman herself, but her family, and it is not often available to be returned.

The bill, if enacted, would improve women’s rights dramatically.  In addition to the brideprice provisions, the bill prohibits “widow inheritance” (the practice of marrying off a widow to her deceased husband’s relative), grants certain rights to cohabiting couples, and equalizes the previously discriminatory divorce provisions.  On the other hand, an unfortunate effect of the bill is that it codifies the prohibition on same-sex marriages.  In addition, some feel that it does not adequately address the harms of polygamy.

Women’s groups have waited 4 decades for an improved marriage law.  Yet on March 9, 2013, President Yoweri Museveni suggested that the process of passing the bill is being rushed, and called for caution before enacting the bill.  Supporters can only hope that “caution” does not translate into failure to act.