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UGANDA: Uganda Gender Laws Gain Support

At the beginning of November, the Uganda Law Reform Commission brought a new set of proposed gender-related laws before the Ugandan Parliament for debate in response to increased pressure from civil society groups. If passed, the proposed bills would alter laws concerning marriage and divorce, domestic violence, and female circumcision.

Uganda has a diverse society. The draft Marriage and Divorce Bill aims to consolidate laws pertaining to all forms of marriage recognized in Uganda: religious, civil and customary. The new law would ensure both partners fair access to matrimonial wealth during and after marriage, make marital rape illegal, and ban bride price, a practice that demands the husband pays the bride’s family to marry her.

According to statistics from the Uganda Law and Reform Commission, 78 per cent of women have experienced some form of domestic abuse. The Domestic Relations Bill would protect women in the private sphere through enforcing the punishment of perpetrators of domestic violence and providing guidelines for courts to follow with regards the protection and compensation of victims of domestic violence.

The aim of the Female Genital Mutilation Bill is to criminalise female circumcision, which in Uganda involves the removal of the clitoris and scraping of the genital area. The World Health Organisation published a report in 2006 explaining the harmful effects of female circumcision. Many girls bleed to death or die from diseases such as tetanus contracted during or after the operation and risks related to childbirth are increased. The practice is still carried out by the Sabiny, Sebei, and Pokot tribes in eastern Uganda, usually on girls between the ages of 14 and 16. The bill suggests up to 10 years imprisonment for surgeons or parents who promote the practice.

Rights versus tradition

The case of Ms Mary Agote, reported in a study conducted by Uganda Land Alliance and Action Aid, is an example of how customary law weighs strongly in favour of the husband. Ms Agote married at the age of 16 years old and her husband paid five heads of cattle to her family in order to marry her. She contributed financially by working on other people’s land for income and making improvements to the house. Several years later, her husband married a second wife and stopped supporting her. After a conflict, the second wife accused Ms Agote of trying to bewitch her husband, and she was beaten by her former husband until she required hospitalisation. After recovery, she was not allowed to return to the family home and her husband denied her custody of their children and gave her no share of their marital wealth. Ms Agote has reported him to the district probation officer, but he is a former classmate of her husband, so no action was taken.

Customary law is the most commonly practised form of law in Uganda, and according to it, women may not own property nor retain custody of their children after divorce and are not entitled to any share of the marital wealth during or after marriage. Bride price is a custom which has traditionally been seen as a commitment on the part of the husband to his new wife. Opponents view it as the “buying” of a wife, who is then “owned” by her husband.

A workshop was held in early October by the Uganda Women Parliamentarians Association (UWOPA), a women’s rights group, to open the debate surrounding the new gender laws. The workshop was attended by 230 male legislators and response to the new laws was initially resistant. MP Simon Oyet said at the workshop, “A husband in the home is head of the family. You must know your husband is more equal than you.”

MP Otto Odongo expressed his views on wife-beating, “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.” Women’s rights activists argue that these cultural attitudes undermine the internationally agreed upon rights of dignity and equality to which all women are entitled.

Opposition to the Marriage and Divorce Bill has also come from religious leaders. The Catholic Church in Uganda condemns the bill as decreasing the role of religion in marriage, giving more importance to material wealth and land. Sheik Hassan Kirya also voiced resistance to the draft Marriage and Divorce Bill to The Monitor newspaper, suggesting that Islamic law will continue to take precedence over civil law, regardless of whether the bill is passed: "As for the new changes, we, the Muslims, are not concerned because marriage is part of worship and therefore it has its own rules.”

SOURCE: The International

AUTHOR: Lis Carter

URL: Click here

DATE: 03/12/09

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