Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-UGANDA: An Equal Hearing for Women in Divorce Cases

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Mar 13 2004 (IPS) - The ideal of gender equality in Uganda was brought closer to realisation recently with a Constitutional Court ruling on the country’s Divorce Act.

The court struck down ten sections of the act, saying they contravened a clause in the constitution that guaranteed women equal rights to men. The case which led to the ruling was filed by the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers.

While the Divorce Act previously allowed men to leave their wives in instances of adultery, women were not granted the same right. They had to prove their husbands guilty not only of adultery, but a range of crimes that included bigamy, sodomy, rape and desertion.

On Mar. 10 however, a panel of five constitutional judges unanimously upheld the view that grounds for divorce must apply equally to all parties in a marriage.

“Why this judgement was a landmark, is because it establishes firmly, beyond all doubt, the equality of the sexes – bringing life into the constitution, and giving it real meaning,” said a Kampala lawyer who declined to be named.

“Initially it (the Divorce Act) meant that if my wife caught me committing adultery with my housemaid, that was not…a ground for divorce, as long as I am providing for her and I am not cruel to her…(But) if I found her doing the same thing with someone else, that would be grounds for divorce. That’s not equal treatment of men and women,” he added.

The judgement also answered the demands of a 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, “Just Die Quietly: Domestic Violence and Women’s Vulnerability to HIV/AIDS in Uganda”. The New York-based non-governmental organisation said that domestic violence in the East African country was making women vulnerable to contracting HIV, and that laws which hampered their ability to leave abusive relationships should be repealed.

A women’s rights activist and member of parliament, Betty Amongin, believes that as much as the ruling is a step forward, women still have a long way to go in fighting discrimination.

“The principle of equality should be a benchmark to measuring everything, including access to jobs,” she said.

Amongin claims there are several other laws that do not conform to the constitutional principle of equality between the sexes – including the Land and Marriage Acts, which prevent women from owning property or taking custody of children after divorce.

“We must put forward a fight so that issues like co-ownership of land are looked into. Women are responsible for over 80 percent of the agricultural produce in the country,” she said.

The payment of bride price is also likely to complicate efforts at smoothing the divorce process for women. Ugandan tradition requires a groom to give gifts of money, and perhaps also livestock, to his prospective parents-in-law. However, these gifts must be returned if the wife leaves her husband.

In most cases this is not possible, as the bride’s family has already spent the money. This creates a situation where women are encouraged to remain in unhappy marriages, no matter what the personal cost.

Last week’s ruling will also allow wives to claim damages from the women who committed adultery with their husbands. Previously, only men could sue those who were caught in adulterous relationships with their wives.

In addition, the court’s decision contained at least one piece of good news for men. From now on, they will be allowed to claim alimony from their ex-wives.

It is hoped that the 1904 Divorce Act will ultimately be replaced by the new Domestic Relations Bill – a more progressive piece of legislation that was tabled in parliament last December.

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