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UGANDA: Wanted: New Messengers on Women’s Rights

ENTEBBE, Uganda, Oct 12 2009 (IPS) - Activists have spent decades trying to get new laws passed to secure the rights of Ugandan women in the private sphere. As a fresh set of gender-related laws comes before parliament, activists are this time seeking to enlist male legislators as partners in advocating their passage.

Parliament is presently considering legislation on marriage and divorce, domestic violence and female genital mutilation. The Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association (UWOPA) recently held a two-day workshop aimed at bringing as many of the country’s 230 male legislators as possible on board.

The focus of the discussion at the seminar, held in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria just east of the capital Kampala, was the draft Marriage and Divorce Bill, which in its draft form guarantees partners fair access to matrimonial wealth during and after a marriage. It would also recognise the crime of marital rape, acknowledging a partner’s right to choose when to have sex.

Fixed minds

The seminar, began on a resistant note with male parliamentarians challenging clauses of the Bill. For instance, while the constitution provides that women and men are equal in marriage and dissolution of marriage, men argued that culture demands otherwise.

Reading the Bill

The Marriage and Divorce Bill seeks to reform and consolidate the law relating to all types of marriage recognised in Uganda: civil, Christian, Hindu, Bahai and customary marriages.

The Bill states that partners are entitled to equal rights during either co-habitation or marriage, and that matrimonial property shall be equally accessed and owned in common. All property and assets of both partners automatically become their joint property.

Spouses or cohabitees may however make an alternative agreement with respect to the ownership and distribution of property on dissolution of the marriage or co-habitation.

If passed, the law will require courts to divide wealth between spouses in case of divorce. When dividing wealth, the domestic work done by the wives will also be considered.

"In distributing the property after a marriage has been dissolved, the court shall take into account the length of marriage, age of spouse and the contribution of each spouse to the acquisition, maintenance or improvement of the property. This will include the contribution of a spouse towards the up-keeping and maintenance of the property in cash or kind," says Tessa Kawoya, Legal Officer Uganda Law Reform Commission.

Alimony at divorce can also be required from either spouse depending on which one is in a better financial status at that time.

Uganda currently has no law on marital rape. But the new Bill prohibits sex without consent of both parties, creating both a civil and criminal liability.

A spouse may deny the other spouse the right to sexual intercourse on 'reasonable' grounds such as poor health, after surgery, child birth or if the spouse suspects the other of having a sexually-transmitted disease.

Furthermore, the Bill bans the payment of bride price, which it replaces with a strictly voluntary practice giving marriage gifts. It also prohibits widow inheritance and gives authority to women to decide on the number of children they want to produce and choose a family name, a profession and an occupation. A married woman shall also have the right to retain her maiden name.

Most controversial however, is the clause that allows for women married to impotent men to divorce them.

East African Legislator Lydia Wanyoto said impotence before or after marriage is already ground for divorce.

"A woman should not stay in a relationship when her marital rights are not being fulfilled," she told MPs at the workshop.

MP Bright Rwamirama agreed, arguing that impotent men marrying women should be criminalised.

However, MP John Nasasira said if impotence comes after fathering children, the couple should stay together.

“A husband in the home is the head of the family. You must know that your husband is more equal than you,” said MP Simon Oyet.

Some MPs even defended the practice of wife beating, describing it as not only acceptable but as a gesture of love.

“In my culture if a husband spends a while without beating you, then you better think twice because wife beating is a sign of love,” Odongo Otto said.

Barnabas Tinkasimire was not happy with the clause on equal distribution of wealth and maintenance costs upon divorce, which would require the support of an unemployed spouse who has custody of a child.

“It is not realistic to keep on supporting a wife you have divorced especially after she has taken half of your property already just because of maintenance costs for children,” the legislator said.

MP Pius Mujuzi warned that the Bill needed careful thought and revision before it could be passed, for it could make things worse. His argument is that if men are frustrated by the new law – by being forced to pay alimony or giving up assets upon divorce – it could lead to increased violence against women.

“In some regions, women murder their husbands because of the unjust marriage laws and property laws. They become desperate. So in the same way, if you make laws that suppress men, the same thing could happen. It might cause violence,” Mujuzi said.

Domestic violence takes place in a context of women’s dependency on men, therefore economic empowerment is important. What steps are being taken to sensitise and empower women, asked MP Elijah Muhindo Kyetunde.


Hope

Kyetunde’s comment was indication of a shift in tone. The resistance of the morning session turned into a vibrant and accepting afternoon. Making a case for male involvement in promoting gender equality in Uganda, Member of Parliament Dr Chris Baryomunsi took his colleagues through the challenges that women face due to their gender.

Baryomunsi, a renowned women’s rights activist argued that the low status of women in society, discrimination against women and poor health and nutrition status affect women’s rights.

He emphasised the importance of male involvement at household level in securing expanded rights for women, improved family health, better communication between partners and joint and informed decision making within households.

Baryomunsi says while there are many male MPs that support women’s empowerment, most programmes lack clarity as to how male involvement should be promoted. He argues that women sometimes undermine and defeat their own cause by leaving men out of gender and development programmes.

“That is one of the reasons the Domestic Relations Bill failed in the Seventh Parliament,” he said.

He said the use of female lawyers to present the Bills to the workshop that morning also negatively impacted on the men’s response to the cause.

“Why didn’t the Uganda Law Reform Commission use its male lawyers to present the proposed Bill to the male Members of Parliament? When you use the women of the Law Reform Commission, well, it’s like as if it is their (the women’s) own views. But if it were the men presenting these Bills, probably the message would be delivered differently and the acceptability different.

“Men’s needs have to be understood holistically… Packaging of information in reference to male partners is important,” Baryomunsi says.

There was consensus among men present that they wanted to be involved as partners in gender issues but only if the women involved them.  
”If these women activists could find a way of convincing Dr Baryomunsi to market this Bill for them, I can assure you very many men will come on board. The way we package our messages matters a lot,” Oyet said.

Says legislator Beatrice Lagada: “Once the men realise that it is important to become partners with women, then I will request those who have become partners to design programmes for other men. We need to take this debate outside the hotel and into the public arena.”

MP Betty Kamya also urged that broader action be taken, emphasising that women with an education can be more assertive against violence and better able to avoid or leave abusive situations to live on their own.

“We should put a lot of emphasis on broadening options for women. The reason that women are trapped is because they do not have options. If a girl child gets a good education, she can stand up against violence. Instead of dealing with catastrophes, we should deal with prevention.”

Kamya also emphasised the importance of instilling values in sons at a young age so as to sensitise them about women’s rights.

“We need to begin with the way we raise our children. We should raise our boys to respect women. This should be done in the main school curriculum. The way women choose to bring up their sons is the way these sons will behave when they are adults,” Kamya said.

By the end of the workshop, there were signs that UWOPA’s initiative of bringing the male legislators on board was one positive stride ahead towards securing the rights of women through gender-related legislation.

The Bill faces a stiff challenge however. Uganda’s Catholic Church has made vocal public statements against it, arguing that the Bill degrades the role of religion in marriage and encourages divorce.

“The law takes precedence over the commitment of the two married people, (instead giving it) to other things like material wealth and property,” says Fr Lawrence Kanyike of St Augustine’s Chapel, Makerere University.

 
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